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Christopher Douce

RSA: Teaching to make a difference, London

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On 3 September 2016 I found the time to attend a short event at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA website) that had the title ‘teaching to make a difference’. This blog summary comes from a set of notes that I made during the event.

Over the last couple of years I have increasingly been involved with and have been thinking about how best to provide continuing professional development (CPD) for Open University associate lecturers. This RSA event was all about how to provide CPD for primary and secondary school teachers; I felt that this event might be able to help me in my day job (but I wasn’t quite sure how).

One of the first speakers of the evening was former Schools minister, Jim Knight. I noted down the sentence ‘more than 2 in 3 [teachers] don’t have any professional development’ (I don’t know the extent of whether or not this is true) and ‘most head teachers do professional development’. An interesting point is that this can be connected to regulatory stuff; things that need to be done to make sure the job is done well.

When delivering a CPD session a few months back I showed tutors different models of teaching and learning, some of which were in the shape of a triangle (which appears to be a common theme!) In this RSA talk we were presented another triangle model. This one had the title: ‘what really matters in education’. The model contained three points that were all connected together: trust (and professionalism), peer learning (learning from each other), and the importance of skills and knowledge.

Another note I scribbled down was: ‘there are CPD standards, [but are they] enough?’ I know of one Open University CPD standard or model, but this made me realise that I ought to know about the other CPD models that might exist. 

Two other notes I made were: ‘intangible assets’ and ‘long term mentoring’. I guess the point is that CPD can build intangible assets into the fabric of an organisation, and this can be closely linked to belonging to a community of people who are involved with teaching. The term ‘long term’ mentoring was also thought provoking: was that something that I unexpectedly and implicitly have been doing in my day job?

I also wrote down the phrases ‘learning from failure’ and ‘equip teachers with CPD; personally develop those teachers who stick with it’. In terms of my own teaching experience, I really relate to the idea of learning from failure; sometimes things just don’t work as you expect them to. It is important to remember that it is okay to take risks, and it is okay if things go slightly wrong. Teachers are encouraged to step back and reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what could be improved the next time round. During the talk, I was also reflecting on the Open University strategy which has the title ‘students first’. My own view is one that reflects my own perspective: I believe in a parallel but unspoken strategy of ‘teachers first’.

Panel discussion

After Jim’s talk there was a panel discussion between four discussants. The first discussant was David Weston who I understand was from the teacher development trust (charity website). He spoke about big differences between schools. I made the note: ‘I feel alive, pushed; tears, nobody attends to my needs’ (but I’m a little unsure as to what the context was). I did note down five points: (1) help teachers learn; students’ outcomes increases, (2) evidence and expertise (I’m not quite sure exactly what this means), (3) peer support and expert challenge, (4) they need time, and (5) senior learners [need to] make it a priority. (I am assuming that ‘it’ means CPD).

The second discussant, Alison Peacock (Wikipedia) CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching (college website) spoke about CPD standards, trust, expertise and the importance of listening. An interesting thought was that ‘pedagogy is all about experiences’. I didn’t catch the name of the next discussant, but I noted down that ‘taking risks means trust’ and that good teaching means stepping into other people’s shoes.

The final discussant was Matt Hood from TeachFirst (TeachFirst website), the organisation that trains and develops teachers. A key question is: what should CPD entail? I’ve noted down: reading, watching and practice. Matt told us about a couple of interesting web resources and programmes: Teach Like a Champion and Urban Teachers.

Reflections

I’ve had a busy few months: between attending this event and writing this summary, I have returned to being a student again (whilst keeping my day job): I’m studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education at Birkbeck College. I realise that I’m doing this extra bit of studying for one reason alone: to get additional CPD; to learn how to become a better university teacher.

When I looked at my notes again I’m reminded that the higher education sector can learn a lot from other sectors. I’m also reminded that I really ought to look into whether I ought to become more involved in an organisation like SEDA, the Staff and Education Development Association (SEDA website) now that CPD is quite a big part of what I do.

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AL Development: Sketching and Prototyping, London

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On the evening of 8 December 2016, my staff tutor colleague, Asma, set up and ran an associate lecturer development event for tutors who were working on a number of design modules. Incidentally, this was also one of the last AL development events that were run in the London regional centre, before it closes at the end of January 2017.

I usually take notes during these AL development events, so I can share some notes to everyone afterwards, but I became pretty busy chatting to everyone which meant that I didn’t have the time. This blog post is, subsequently, a pretty short one, since I’m relying purely on my fallible memory.

The event was advertised to design tutors in two Open University regional areas: in London, and in the South East. Although design tutors were the main ‘target group’, the event was also open to tutors who worked on a module called TM356 Interaction Design and the User Experience (OU website). The aim of the event was to share tips and techniques about prototyping and sketching. These techniques could then, in turn, be shared with students during face to face tutorial sessions.

The session was really informal. It was, in essence, a kind of show case. Different activities and demonstrations were placed throughout the room on different tables, and participants were invited to ‘experience’ sets of different activities. One activity was all about sketching using shade, lines and texture (if I remember correctly). Another was a scene where we could practice still life drawing. In fact, we had a choice: a set of shells, or a set of objects which represented our location.

A collection of objects that represent London as a tourist attraction

I remember two other demonstrations or ‘stands’: one was about the creation of physical prototypes and another was a show and tell about how different drawing and sketching techniques could be used to represent different product designs. I was particularly taken by the physical prototyping demonstration: we were shown card, bendy steel wire (which could be easily bought in a hardware store), and masking tape. The wire, we were told, could be used to add structure to physical objects; pieces of wire could be bent and twisted together, and taped onto the back of segments of card, to create the surfaces of objects.

I tried my hand at sketching, but I have to confess that I didn’t get too far: I soon became engaged in discussions about how these different techniques might be useful during a longer tutorial about physical prototyping. Another thought was: how could we replicate these kinds of prototyping and interactive activities when we have to use online tools? Or put another way, how could we run sessions when students can’t physically get to a classroom. It is clear that there no easy answers; I now wish that I had made better notes of all the discussions!

Not only were we all exposed to a number of different techniques, some of the tutors also had an opportunity to catch up with each other and chat about how a new module was going.

An interesting question is: could it be possible to run an online equivalent of this session? The answer is: possibly, but it would be very different, and it would require a huge amount of planning to make it work: things don’t spontaneously happen in the online world like they can during a face to face session.

Although the office is closing, there are different planning groups that are starting up to try to make sure that essential associate lecturer development activities still continue. I’m not sure when there will be another face to face session quite like this, but I do hope we can organise another one.

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Christopher Douce

Module debriefing: M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, 15:16

The first Open University module that I was a tutor for was called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. I have some faint recollections of going to a module briefing which took place in Milton Keynes. When the module finished (and I found myself on the module team) I decided to run an unofficial module debriefing. This blog post has been derived from a set of notes that I made during the debriefing that was held in Camden Town on 16 July 2016. It is a part of a larger piece of work that I hope will be useful to inform university teaching practice across Computing and IT modules. Eleven people attended, most of them were associate lecturers. There was one staff tutor (a line manager for associate lecturers), and the original M364 module chair. 

Initial comments

A really interesting point was that the module doesn’t teach what is meant by ‘justification’. This is important because the TMAs for the module don’t necessarily have right or wrong answers (instead, students might present answers that are not appropriately justified).

A comment from tutors: students who are taking M364 as a first module may struggle, especially when it comes to the writing; they can also be shocked by the amount of reading that they have to do. The four blocks ‘dart around’ the set text, which can be disorientating. 

Marking

Marking is considered to be very time consuming because tutors need to understand the material very well. Anything between 1 hour and 3 hours per assignment is reported, which is at odds with the university guidelines of 45 minutes. In my own experience over ten years, I rarely got the marking down to an hour per assignment. 

Tutorials

The more students that attend the day schools, the more exciting they become. It’s important to offer real world examples (I regularly used door handles).

Exam marking

One tutor reported that they loved doing exam marking since it can inform other types of marking. An interesting observation is that the marking for M364 seemed to take longer than with other modules. It was also a challenge to try ‘to read their minds’ (in terms of looking for evidence of understanding).

Terminology

One observation was that there were occasional differences in the way that terminology was used within the module. There were also differences in terminology between modules, i.e. the terms ‘use cases’ and ‘scenarios’ are different in modules such as M256 (which is a Java module). Some English as a Second Language (ESL) students can find things especially difficult, since there are so many terms (especially in terms of the usability and the user experience goals).

Culture

Block 2 contains a section on culture and cultural dimensions, which hasn’t made it into the replacement module, TM356. Students sometimes took the section about culture very literally, but this aspect of the module did lead to some really lively discussions during tutorials. Even though the research about culture that is featured in block 2 can be criticised very easily, it offered a useful vocabulary.

Module team

The overwhelming view was that the module team responded to any problems and issues very quickly and efficiently. (This view wasn’t just expressed because a member of the module team was at the debrief meeting). 

Monitoring

During the module, monitoring was, by and large, allocated to a single monitor. Once that monitor had decided to move on, or wasn’t available, monitoring responsibility was handed over to another volunteer. There was the view that monitoring could have been distributed more widely across all the tutors. Key points were: ‘you learn more from monitoring than being monitored’ and ‘you see how others are marking’.

Tutor resources

One thing that I’ve noted down was that a roadmap of the course would be considered to be useful. Perhaps there could be more materials about the ‘mindset of correct, not correct’ answers. A challenge for new tutors is to understand the philosophy of the module, and it might be useful to convey the point that feedback to students has to be relevant to context of the tuition (or, put another way, tutor comments have to be aligned with and relate to what the students have submitted).

Something else that would be useful would be to have specimen TMA solutions: one that is very good, another that might be mediocre, to allow tutors to ‘align’ their marking.  In a similar vein, it would be useful to share different examples of marking practice.

Guidance to tutors is considered to be important: encourage new tutors to be flexible, and tell them not to be afraid of moving away from the module materials (if they find it appropriate to do so). Also, don’t expect to be perfect; this is a subject that doesn’t have perfect answers. 

Further work

During the debriefing event (which was, in essence, a focus group), I made a recording of all the discussions. My next step is to transcribe the recording so I can try to compose a distilled summary of what amounts to over 10 years of collective distance learning teaching practice of a subject that I feel is pretty difficult to teach. At the same time, I hope to present a short seminar so I can more directly share stories and experiences with some of my colleagues who teach different Computing and IT modules. I have no idea when I’m going to be able to do this, though; I’ll just try to fit it in when I can!

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TM470 New tutor day

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Nov 2016, 09:46

I first joined The Open University as a part time tutor back in 2006 where I tutored a module called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design. Knowing that this module was coming to an end I decided to apply to tutor on another module: TM470 The Computing and IT project, and I was successful!

I was invited to attend a ‘new tutor day’ which took place in the West Midlands regional centre in Birmingham (which is, sadly, closing in the new year) to learn about the ins and outs of tutoring this module. This was also an opportunity to meet my TM470 mentor, fellow TM470 tutors, and some of my colleagues who support the delivery of computing and IT modules from the Manchester and Birmingham offices. This blog post has been drawn from a set of notes I’ve made during the day, which took place on 2 July 2016.

Project choice

I’ve noted down the question: ‘what makes a good project theme?’ It’s a simple question and one that is very important: students must have a clear idea about what the problem is that they want to solve within their project. It should also have sensible limits, i.e. students shouldn’t aspire to creating the next big app for the iPhone.

Successful projects are those that draw upon practical skills that have been learnt (or studied) in previous level 3 modules. A project could also build on something that has been done before. Students should (ideally) be knowledgeable about the domain or environment in which a project relates to (so they don’t have to spend lots of time doing research into an area that isn’t familiar to them). Also, importantly, a project should be connected with something that a student is interested in doing (so they maintain their motivation).

Another bit of advice is: students should stick with using software that they know; don’t be tempted to play with new things, since it’s easy to get tied up in knots.

Sometimes students might be tempted to draw upon projects that relate to their work place. An important point is: work and TM470 have different goals; it is probably best to keep work and study separate for the simple reason that changes at work might jeopardise the project. This rule, however, doesn’t have to apply in all cases: students need to understand what is required from TM470.

Another really important point is: a project doesn’t have to have a successful outcome to submit a final project report. Students can still pass if things go horribly wrong: it is the description of the project, the learning, and the reflections that all count towards the final scores. If these are done really well, students will get a really good pass.

Another note I’ve made is all about research: ‘not really understanding what is meant by research that is academic, or what is meant by an academic literature review (and analysis)’. Some projects may be research projects, in the sense that they are an in-depth and critical study of a particular area. If students choose research projects, the need to be clear in terms of what is required of them. 

Independent learning

TM470 is different to other modules, since what really matters is being able to demonstrate independent learning; tutors will not be subject experts in all the areas in which projects are chosen from. A note I’ve made is: ‘if software breaks, it is part of your job on a project to fix it’. The role of a tutor is to push a student into this mind set.

Practicalities

I made a note that we discussed the importance of the introductory letter, and that we might connect this to the use of our module discussion forum.

A really important resource is the OU Library which allows student direct access to a wealth of prestigious journals. Another thought is to direct students to library tutorials (understanding eJournals) about how they can get started.

The project module doesn’t have any official tutorials, since it is difficult to run group events where every student is working on a different project (and will have different learning needs and problems). This said, some tutors do use OU Live to run some unofficial introductory tutors. 

Towards the end of the day, we discussed practicalities about end of module assessment marking, and assignment marking. Key questions that were asked were: ‘how do you do it?’ and ‘what processes do you use?’ The module has a very clear set of marking guidelines that are also known to the students. Ultimately, everything comes back to the question of whether students have met the learning outcomes.

Reflections from first presentation

Now that I have more of an idea how the module works and how it is structured, I think I will run an introductory OU Live tutorial at the start of the next presentation. This will allow me to learn more about the student’s ideas and understand more about their potential problems. I will also use this to emphasise the importance of time management.

In comparison to other modules that I have tutored on, I found the marking to be pretty straightforward once I knew how it worked. It took me a bit of time to find the forms, and then to internalise the marking criteria (but this is always the case when starting to work on a new module). One of the things that I really enjoyed was looking at the diversity of the projects, and how the students tackled them.

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Horizons in STEM higher education conference 2016

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This blog has been taken from a set of notes I made when I visited the Horizons in STEM conference at the University of Leicester on 30 June 2016. Attending an event like this, to do ‘something academic’, made me feel weirdly guilty since I had been spending so much of my time doing ‘admin stuff’.

The aim of the conference was all about developing teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, and sharing practice about what works and what doesn’t. Two speakers gave an opening address: there was the head of STEM from the HEA, and Nick Braithwaite from The Open University. Comments were made about the student voice, commitment to the discipline and the constant importance of professional integrity. I also noted down the words, ‘we want to improve our critical pedagogy; encourage everyone to be critical’. The second keynote speech was especially interesting because it was pretty distant from my know experience and knowledge: it was about how shared laboratory and learning spaces could be used to create an interdisciplinary subject centre.

Day one: first session

The first presentation I attended had the title ‘the educational value of student generated videos’. The idea was to replace a static poster with a five minute videos. As I listened, I thought of the Open University T215 module which requires students to create a short presentation.

One of the presentations that I particularly liked had the title: ‘undergraduate eJournals’. An eJournal is an official university publication for undergraduate studies that was linked to a ten point module. Interestingly, the articles published in an eJournal can be picked up by Google Scholar and the national media. Students could adopt the roles of author, referee and play a role on an editorial board. A new term that I’ve learnt was: synoptic learning. A key point for students was: try to create a paper that links science and fun topics; wacky can be good.

Discussion session

The next session was about discussion. I made notes about issues relating to ‘normative practice’ (without really understanding that this meant), social justice and inclusion.

An interesting question that was posed was: ‘are you aware of attainment gaps [in your programmes and modules]?’ Accompanying questions were: ‘are they discussed in your module team meetings, and do you know why they happen?’ and ‘do you discuss potential solutions?’ There were a series of related points: the importance of transition between levels of study, the importance of data, and the importance of critical reflection. Inclusion was discussed in terms of inclusive curriculum; making a subject relevant to individual students.

Flexibility and Personalisation

Neil Gordon from the University of Hull spoke about two pieces of work: flexible pedagogy and attainment. Flexible pedagogy was defined as giving students more choice about when to learn, where to learn and how to learn (mode, pace and place). Some interesting points that relate to computer science: it is a popular subject, but there appears to be a mismatch between expectations, i.e. computer science does not equal information technology. There are some clear challenges: computer science was noted to be the second worse subject for awarding good degrees (I should add that I’m not sure whether this was a national perspective or an institutional perspective), and 83% of students are male (again, I’m not sure on where this figure was taken from). Are there solutions? Some ideas were: to develop interactive tutorials, to create automated assessment, and look at the transition between school and colleague, and look to community engagement.

The next presentation was by Derek Raine from the University of Leicester. My notes read: ‘personalise the content to match with the aims and objectives for students – usual approach: core, options and a capstone project’.  Other points were: ‘drivers of change include finance, non-standard providers, media, and MOOCs’. The following question could be asked in classes: ‘what would you like to be discussed in the sessions?’

Final session

The final session that I attended was opened by Simon Grey from the University of Hull who spoke about ‘Games, learning and engagement’. Simon presented a brief history of gaming followed by a summary of the concept of gamification and game based learning. I learnt that there were eight different types of fun: sensation, fantasy, narrative, challenge, fellowship, discover, expression and submission (these terms reminded me of usability and user experience goals that are found in interaction design). Other points include the importance of mechanics (rules), dynamics (the system), and aesthetics (the look and feel), before Simon spoke about the concept of flow, and that we needed to give students clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges that match their skill.

I think it was then my turn to do a bit of speaking. I spoke about a university funded project to study the teaching of a second level module about web technologies. My key points were that students differed significantly in terms of their backgrounds and abilities, and tutors differed significantly in terms of their online teaching practice.

The next session, entitled ‘teaching programming and data analysis with a MOOC’ was given by my colleague Michel Wermelinger. Michel talked about his experience of teaching on a MOOC entitled ‘learn to code for data analysis’ which has been presented through FutureLearn. Michel mentioned some software that students could use: a Python distribution called Anaconda (Wikipedia), something called SageMathCloud (Wikipedia), and Jupyter notebooks (Jupyter website). We were also told of a blog post that Michel had written called the First Principles of Instruction (blog post). The post which presents a very brief summary of five principles of instructional design that promotes learning and engagement. These are: problem centred, activation (of past experience), demonstration (to show new knowledge), application, and integration (of new knowledge into existing knowledge or practice).

It was a good talk. I have one other memory, which was that Michel was pretty robust in his views about much workload running a MOOC actually entails from a lecturer’s perspective.

Day two: first session

The first session had the title ‘development of digital information literacy’ by Eleanor Crabb who was also from the OU. I noted down the terms ‘understanding digital practices, finding information and critical evaluation’. There was a mention of an online pinboard tool, which was a bit like Pinterest, and a presentation about different activities: an icebreaker activity and a collaborative activity where students had to summarise a chemistry paper.

The next session had the title ‘encouraging students’ reflection through online progress files’. All students were required to make comments every week on each module, which in turn, acquire marks – which is an interesting parallel with a scientist’s notebook.  Key challenges included engagement with students and staff and students knowing what to write (which was ameliorated by a set of more detailed guidelines).

A session that I found especially interesting was entitled ‘maths advice and revision for chemistry’.  A key term that I noted down was: ‘the maths problem’; some students didn’t have mathematics as a prerequisite when they started to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Glasgow University. I also noted down bit of research that one of the best indicators of success in chemistry wasn’t having studied chemistry in the past, but instead, having an existing maths qualification. As I listened I started to think about (and remember) my own experience as a computer science student where I had to attend remedial maths classes (since I didn’t study A-level). I had to attend these classes where we were given maths puzzles printed on yellow paper. In Glasgow University, students could attend voluntary labs, workshops and group tutorials. Subjects included complex numbers, vectors, matrices, differentiation and integration. I couldn’t help but feel that such an approach would have been really useful during my own undergraduate studies.

The final session had the title: ‘understanding the process by which students manage their employability’. Employability was defined as ‘personal assets, how they are deployed, how they are presented to employers, and the wider context (such as economic conditions and personal circumstances). Another thought I had was that employability also relates the information that employers might find easily discover about potential employees if they do a quick internet search (which was a theme I think I was introduced to at another HEA workshop). Much food for thought.

Keynote summary:  Future directions in teaching and learning

The second conference keynote was by Derek Raine (who spoke during an earlier session) from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science from the University of Leicester. Derek mentioned something called the New Directions in the teaching of Physics which presents opinion pieces, pedagogic research and reviews.

Before considering the future, Raine looked to the past to consider the historic and contemporary roles of universities. As well as being centres of study for the sciences and humanities, they can also be considered to be an ‘engine of social mobility, a driver of economic growth, and a cornerstone of our cultural landscape. Points were drawn from the 2016 white paper (THES explanation), and the 1963 Robins Report in Higher Education  (Education England) which states that higher education should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it (page 9).  

According to Raine (and my notes), the 2016 white paper cites problems: that courses are inflexible, that students are dissatisfied, and there are national skills shortages. An important point is that there is increased competition from different types of education providers which is connected with an important change in perspective. Historically, higher education has been viewed as being a public good (the view that an educated and skilled workforce helps all members of society) whereas it is now being presented as a private good (that an education helps the individual to earn money). My view, and those of others that I work with is that the first perspective needs to be protected.

Another point was that there is research that tells us something about what works in higher education teaching. Key points include: time on task, trained teaching staff, the importance and use of collaborative learning, class sizes, quality of feedback, and the sense of community (Gibbs, Dimensions of Quality, Higher Education Academy PDF).

I made a note of some pedagogies (approaches to teaching) that were mentioned: personalised lecturers (that are based on student questions), flipped classrooms (where students listen to lectures before attending a tutorial), problem-based learning, MOOCs (which I’m very cynical about), gamificiation, extension tasks and student journals. As our speaker was speaking, I made a note that I felt important: ‘an alternative division of labour where pedagogic research or scholarship plays a part’.

Another interesting idea was the importance of sustainability (of higher education, and education per se) as a fundamental idea or principle. I also noted that it is important that ‘history is linked with the present, science linked with society, and economies with social justice, and this is achieved through interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary’. I agree: connections are important since they offer us perspective.

These final thoughts inspired an interesting point during the concluding question and answer session: ‘it isn’t just about what a university is for, but also what is an economy for; it’s not just about money, it’s about culture and our place within it’. 

Final session

The first of three sessions was from three of my OU colleagues, Ann Walshe, Anne-Marie Gallen, and Anne Campbell who were studying ‘associate lecturer perspectives on supporting students through tuition in groups’. They were asking: ‘what is tuition?’, ‘what can we learn from tutors?’ and ‘are there some common understandings across stakeholders?’ The research is being carried out through workshops and telephone interviews.

The next talk had the title ‘a student monitoring and remedial action system for improving retention of computer science programmes’ by Stewart Green from the University of West of England. I noted that there was a role of a retention co-ordinator. This is someone who gets different sources of data, such as attendance data, VLE logins, and assessment results. A key task is to periodically review the data, and to choose actions supported by student support advisors. Interventions might include email messages, face to face chats, and referrals to advisors. Students may, of course, be affected by a whole range of different issues, including illness, family issues and caring responsibilities.

In some ways Stewart’s role represents a human equivalent of various learning analytics project that I have heard rumours about in the OU. I really like the human element that underlies the looking of reports about attendance and attainment; this backs up my opinion that what really matters in education isn’t technology, but people.

I also noted down a couple of useful reports. The first that I noted had the title: Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change by Liz Thomas (HEA website). The second was entitled Undergraduate retention and attainment across the disciplines (HEA website).

The final session was called ‘visualising student progress: identifying patterns in the behaviour of students learning databases’. It was given by Andrew Cumming from Edinburgh Napier. Andrew spoke about tutorial exercises, where students had to perform SQL database searches across a number of live databases. I also have made the note ‘can we tell the difference between formal and informal learners?’ but I have no idea what this means.

Concluding thoughts

By the end of the two days at Leicester, I was pretty tired: there had been loads of presentations, and a lot of take in. Even though several months have now passed since the event, I can still remember some highlights. I was particularly interested in three things: the idea of an official ‘student journal’ as a learning tool (it was an interesting pedagogic approach), the idea of a ‘retention tutor’ (retention is a theme which crops up at almost every meeting I attend), and a welcome dose of perspective given to everyone during the second keynote.

There was one theme that seemed to go through every session: the importance of connecting teaching and research. Even though some of us might work in a discipline that doesn’t change very much (such as mathematics), the context and environment in which a subject or discipline sits is, of course, always changing. This means that we must always think about, study and explore ways to engage our students.

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AL development event: researching Computing and IT pedagogy

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

This blog has been prepared from a set of notes made during an AL development event on 18 June 2016 which took place at the Open University offices in Camden.

Opening remarks

The session kicked off with a ‘state of the union’ address. One of the big changes that associate lecturers were told about was the merger between two faculties: the Maths Computing and Technology faculty and the Science faculty, to create the STEM, Science Technology Engineering and Maths faculty. One of the reasons cited for this change is that the new faculty will have more independence in terms of how it is able to manage its structures and finances.

There, are, however some interesting differences. The science faculty doesn’t have any face to face tutorials for second and third level modules, whereas MCT does. Another point that I’ve noted down is that science makes more use of formative assessments. I’ve made some notes about what this means, but I won’t go into it here (since I might get some of the details wrong!)

In terms of Computing and IT, there are three new level three modules (which have now started), and two level one modules that are currently being written. These two modules occupy the space where TU100 My Digital Life used to sit. Key issues that needed to be addressed included: clear study overload for students, and issues regarding the transition between levels 1 and 2, especially when it comes to computer programming.

Retention and progression

The topic of retention and progression regularly comes up. The OU faces particular challenges regarding retention and progression due to its open access policy. In response to these challenges (amongst others, of course) the new faculty has created a new role called ‘head of student success’. I personally hold the view that associate lecturers and the student-tutor relationship is the single most important thing in terms of student success, and the new ‘head of student success’ needs to know something about what happens in the life of an associate lecturer to make any impact. Like I say, this is just an opinion (but one that is very valid).

I’ve also made a note that there was some mention of the subject of ‘learning analytics’. This is the study of ‘knowing how, when and where students are clicking’ when they visit the university websites. The idea is that clever algorithms might be able to tell members of the student support teams to give students a ring to have a chat about their studies before things get too difficult. Call me old fashioned: algorithms are all very well and have their uses but when it comes to education, people and personal knowledge matter a whole lot more (and I’ve spent much of my life studying computing and IT systems).

I’ve also made the following note (but I’m not quite sure what point I was trying to make): ‘students first’ means the importance of feedback and feedforward in response to exams, i.e. ‘why did I get a particular score?’ I think I meant: ‘one of the real things that can make a difference to students is the quality of feedback; personalised feedback can (obviously) guide effective learning’.

Group tuition policy session

The university has introduced something called the group tuition policy. There are some obvious issues with it, and I think it is (by and large) a pretty good idea. It has a couple of really simple principles, such as ‘for each face to face event, there should be an online alternative’ and ‘students can attend all learning events that are available in a cluster (of tutor groups). A cluster can be made up of anything between 4 and 10 tutor groups.

I’ve made a note of some really good points that were made during this session. One tutor asked, ‘will there be 100 people turning up when we have a really big cluster?’ Experience now tells us that OU Live tutorials don’t ever get that big, but they can become fairly big. I have heard that for some sessions over forty students have logged into a single learning event. (When I have run a national revision tutorial for a module that had over 320 students, I never had more than 30 students). An interesting point was about the use of microphones: students rarely use them.

One tutor asked the question: ‘will students be able to access learning events from all clusters?’ This isn’t something that I have managed to get a definitive answer about, but I have heard the new term ‘students from alien clusters’.

Another tutor asked about OU Live rooms. We now know that students will have access to up to three different OU Live rooms, and it will be down to the module tuition strategy to say more about how they should be used. In many cases there will be a national OU Live room which the module team could use to deliver lectures. There will be a cluster wide room which will be shared by all tutors who are working in a cluster. Finally, tutors will still have access to their own OU Live room, which can be used for additional support sessions, or tutorials that are for a whole tutor group.

I’ve made a note that there was some discussion about how timetables were set. My own approach has been to use a shared wiki document that is hosted on the university virtual learning environment. The dates and times on the wiki are then transferred to a booking spreadsheet which is passed onto AL services. Something else I’ve set us is a ‘cluster forum’, which is used to communicate will all tutors who are a part of a cluster.

The final discussions were about the learning event management system. The LEM, as it is known, is used to allow students to book onto learning events. One of the features of the LEM is that it will allow tutors to send messages to all the students who have registered for learning events (perhaps to send them some information that could be useful before a tutorial).

Researching Computing and IT Pedagogy

This afternoon session was designed to highlight that the university is currently funding STEM pedagogy through its eSTEeM research project, and to emphasise its importance to tutors. A key point is that tutors are important, since they are those that are closest to students.
One note I made was: ‘what do our students find most difficult?’ One answer is writing, and one module that was singled out was T215. A point was that perhaps there could be more teaching by example: students could be given an example of a good essay and a poorly written essay to show how they were different. 

Another interesting point was: when should the subject of writing (in terms of essay and TMA writing) be introduced to students? One thought was: maybe before the start of first level modules? There is something called a programming bootcamp (Learning Innovation website) that helps students to get to grips with the ideas of computer programming; perhaps there might be a writing bootcamp? Another important issue is the importance of basic numeracy, which is something that the first level Computing and IT modules try to address.

The final note I made was about other resources that tutors could draw upon to help students. The university has its Skills for Study website, resources from the library website and the developing good academic practice website which covers issues such as plagiarism and referencing.

AL contract negotiations update

The final part of the event was about potential changes to the associate lecturer teaching contract. The university and the union have been negotiating the terms for a new contract which should, hopefully, offer associate lecturers more stability and security. Rather than being contracted to a particular module which has a certain life tutors will be given a fractional post where they may be required to undertake a range of other duties, such as monitoring, moderating forums, exam marking, critical reading, and so on. This change in the contract will represent, in my opinion, a fundamental change in how the university operates.

I understand that there has been a university project that has been looking at how to plan and organise workload for these fractional posts. This said, at the time of writing, negotiations are currently stalled due to issues that are connected with the implementation of the group tuition policy.

Final remarks

A lot was covered in quite a short period of time. From my perspective, one of the key outcomes was a renewed sense that we need to collectively conduct some research into why students don’t attend tutorials when they are offered. The more students who attend tutorials (or learning events), the more fun, dynamic and interesting the tutorials will become. As soon as I’ve finished my current pedagogy project (which is about how best to observe teaching and learning practice), the question of tutorial attendance is something that I’m definitely going to pursue, with help from tutors (of course). We need this important piece of research to get more of an insight into issues that surround retention and progression.

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AL moderators training: using OU Live

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 21 Nov 2016, 15:12

The university makes extensive use of a software tool known as OU Live, which allows tutorials to be delivered over the internet. OU Live is, essentially, a branded version of a conferencing and teaching product called Blackboard Collaborate. In the next few years or so, this tool will be replaced with something else, but before this happens tutors are regularly encouraged to attend a series of online training sessions.

Despite being relatively familiar with OU Live, I decided to book myself onto one of these sessions. This blog post is a version of some rough notes that I made during and after the ‘AL moderators’ course that I went on.  (I took these notes back in May, and I’m writing this blog in November, so I hope I can remember everything correctly!)

My main comment is: if you’re an associate lecturer, and you need to deliver the occasional OU Live tutorial, either by yourself, or with other tutors, do try to find the time to book yourself on this course. It’s a pretty useful and it won’t take up too much of your time. It’s also a really useful thing to put on an application form for any other tutoring role that might take your fancy.

Notes

There were three sessions. The first session began with a set of introductions: I really liked the approach that was taken. All participants were asked to put up their hand by clicking on the ‘hand raise’ button. This had the effect of creating an orderly queue of who is going to speak. During the intro, the facilitator got everyone used to turning the ‘talk’ button on and off (which has the effect of preventing background noise). I’m going to term this practice: ‘good microphone hygiene’.

The facilitator had prepared a number of slides and used an interesting technique to create an animation: parts of the slide were covered up with squares which could be dragged out of the way to reveal answers (or other types of information). By way of analogy, think of a big piece of paper that was covered with pieces of card. It was a neat trick!

We were shown how to use OU Live pointers. I tend to use these quite a lot, since they can make things interesting. You can emphasise different points, and move different types of pointer to different parts of a slide.

An interesting open question given to all participants was: ‘What are you looking for from this module?’ It’s a really neat question that gets us talking. Different participants had different perspectives, and the answers allowed the facilitators to create a session that was specialised to those who were attending.

A topic that is regularly discussed is the use and etiquette about recordings. The policies for recordings are not as well defined as they ought to be, but I hold the simple opinion that tutors should always make recordings. In my eyes, recordings have three uses: (1) they help students who have not been able to attend, (2) they can help students who have attended who want to listen to stuff a second time, and (3) can advertise how engaging sessions are, and what a student might miss if they don’t attend a live session. (I don’t hold the view that if you record a session students won’t bother to come along).

Regarding the third point, I remember that there was a discussion session, where the recording was turned off, and a timer was turned on. The timer is a countdown timer, which makes an audible ‘ping’ sound when the time runs out. Two thoughts were: those students who are not attending the live session will miss out on this bit, and ‘I’ve never used a timer before, and it looks like a really useful feature!’

Looking at another tutor’s OU Live session (or teaching practice) really helps you to think about your own. One thing that struck me from the Tutor Moderator’s session was how much space was given over to questions. My own practice is slightly different; I tend to ask for questions at the end (after turning the recording off, to allow students to speak freely). I don’t know whether there is a right or wrong way to do things.

One of the most memorable parts of the course was the bit about breakout rooms. Breakout rooms are virtual spaces where participants can chat between themselves, usually to discuss a predefined issue or problem. Facilitators can also share whiteboard slides to breakout rooms, and can also collate slides from breakout rooms into the main presentation; imagine giving pairs of students’ big pieces of paper which they can write onto during their chat. We were encouraged to click and drag participants between different rooms.

Towards the end of the session, we were asked to consider the difference between ‘ice breaker’ and ‘warm up activity’. I hadn’t ever heard the term ‘warm up activity’ before. I now understand it to be something that a student can do in the moments before the start of an OU Live session. An example might be a message on a whiteboard that goes: ‘write your name, and where you are from’. A warm up activity helps participants to become familiar with the OU Live interface and how it works. An ice breaker, on the other hand is, of course, might be all about talking.

The next step was to share a bit of ‘online teaching’ with someone else who was on the course. Since beginning to study for a PGCE at another institution, I’ve learnt that this kind of practice can be known as ‘microteaching’. In the context of this course, I have to confess that I found myself too busy with various admin activities to complete this bit, which is a shame. If you do this tutor moderators course, don’t repeat my mistake!

Final thoughts

A couple of interesting questions to ask are: ‘what did I get from doing this?’ and ‘where would I use what I have learnt?’

The most useful thing that I learnt was about breakout rooms. Before this session, I didn’t really know how to create breakout rooms, and I found the opportunity to practice really helpful. The idea of dragging live students around on a screen into virtual rooms is pretty terrifying, but it’s a whole lot easier if you’re doing this with a bunch of fellow tutors who are just as befuddled as you are.

Would I use the ‘using white squares to hide bits of the screen’ technique? Probably not. It was a neat idea, but my own practice is to very carefully prep some slides and to use pointers a lot. This said, it’s an interesting technique, and one that I will think about.

I really liked the idea of a warm up activity. I might give this a go.

Since attending the tutor moderator’s course, I’ve used breakout rooms twice. I ran two cluster briefings. A ‘cluster briefing’ as I call them is an online meeting where all the tutors in a group tuition cluster informally discuss tutorial plans. If you are an associate lecturer, and you’re reading this, and you would like a cluster briefing before the next presentation of your module, do ask your staff tutor to run one!

Another question is: ‘what next?’ Or, put another way, ‘what would I like to do better in OU Live?’ The answer to this is ‘team teaching’. At the time of writing, there isn’t any guidance about team teaching best practice with OU Live. Perhaps I’ve stumbled across a whole new research project… Do get in touch if you’re interested in collaborating! 

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Farewell diversity group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 17 Nov 2016, 09:26

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been caught up in the middle of something called the group tuition policy. August and September of this year proved to be my busiest ever at the university. I have, however, found the time to write a short article for the associate lecturer magazine called Snowball (I’ll publish a version of it when it has been released). This post isn't about the trials and tribulations of the group tuition policy, but I'm sure I'll be writing about that another time.

Not long after joining The Open University in London I joined something called an ‘equal opportunities and diversity’ group. I soon learnt that the group was a throwback to an old university wide project that aimed to increase institutional awareness about equality and diversity issues. When the original project came to an end, the London group decided to continue for the simple reason: equality and diversity was considered to be an important issue in our capital city.

There was another reason why I joined: I started to self-identify with people who have disabilities (I have a stutter). Even though I’m a middle class hetrosexual white man, I started to realise that it was important to get involved. Firstly, I realised that my perspective might be one that may be of interest. I then formed the opinion that it was important to build and find allegiances with others. There was another perspective, and this was: the E&O group pretty fun group to be involved with.

This blog is, in some ways, a farewell to the group. The group is disbanding since the university has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to close the London office.  I leave the Camden office with a whole bunch of good memories.

Diversity events

Although the E&O group in London didn’t have any official powers within the university, it was charged with doing two things: representing the views of staff and students through the links that the staff have with different parts of the university, and running a ‘diversity’ event every year.

For those who prefer The Daily Mail over The Guardian, this kind of initiative might seem something of an anathema. The ideals are simple: the university has a responsibility to offer education to anyone who walks through its virtual doors. To educate as effectively as possible, we need to know about some of its students. To educate effectively, we need to become educated ourselves. The help Open University students to succeed, we need to have open minds regarding the perspectives of others.

The first event that I was involved with in 2011 was about travel. It was about sharing thoughts and impressions about places that everyone in the London office had come from, or had a connection with, or had visited. A map was put up in the café area and we were encouraged to deface it positively with string, pins, pen and photographs. Our stories and journeys criss-crossed the globe; almost every continent was touched.

The following year saw an event that was about winter celebrations and memories. We shared photographs and had a competition. The event for 2013 had a slightly different tone: it had the title ‘creative aging’; a topic that was thoroughly embraced. One reason is that our students can be of any age (and, of course, we’re all getting that little bit older).

The 2014 event had the title: ‘Open Minds: Mental Health and Diversity Matters’. This event had two different forms: a participative display that was placed in the café area, where we could share experiences and knowledge about mental health issues, and a lecture about staying mentally healthy. The lecture was given by our university mental health advisor. The message was simple: ‘we’re encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to help with our physical health, so why are we not thinking about things in a similar way about our mental health?’ It’s a compelling point. When we’re so focussed on doing things and dealing with day to day challenges, we can forget to take time out. During the lecture, we were told about an idea called MindApples, which is a London based charity.

Although I enjoyed all these events, the next one was, perhaps, one of my favourites. The 2015 event was entitled: Jokes, Language and Diversity. Humour is a really interesting topic. A good joke or a humorous story can unsettle us and challenge our prejudices (and make us laugh, of course). Humour can, of course, allow us to explore taboos and understand different perspectives. During the event, a series of different performers talked about issues relating to sexuality, race, disability and language.

The final event had the title: Equality and Diversity: Past, Present and Future. This event was centred on another participative display. As well as being a retrospective of all earlier events it also touched upon the subject of utopia: what it meant to different writers and what it meant to the different people who worked in the London regional centre. In some ways, this subject represented another perspective: diversity of thought and diversity of opinion.

The wider perspective

Even though our London diversity group unofficially dissolves at the beginning of 2017, the university has a number of informal staff networks for ‘diverse’ members of staff: there is a disabled staff network, a BME network, a LGBT network, and a women’s network. I was a co-chair of the Open University disabled staff network for a while until I got mad with the ‘network’ scheme and threw all my toys out of the pram.

The reason for my departure from this set of networks was pretty simple: I didn’t feel that the groups were talking to each other, and I felt that the senior management were not taking issues of equality and diversity very seriously. There was another difference: the London diversity group was just that: diverse; it wasn’t a silo: we could talk about anything, and we could challenge each other.

Another reason for leaving the network was down to time: I felt that I could use my time more efficiently by being outside a ‘network’ than within it. Here’s an example: I’ve been lobbying for the university to provide an equality analysis in response to its ongoing restructuring programme (which is a polite way of saying ‘redundancies’ and ‘closures’). This said, I’m not saying that a ‘network’ isn’t useful or important; they may well be very useful in terms of giving voice to some members of staff. My point is: an institutional diversity programme should go further than just having a small number of homogeneous groups.

We learnt some good things in our London group, did some good stuff, and we had some good times. I'm sad that the group is disbanding and the London office is closing (which is something that still baffles me). The success of this group reflects what is really important in the university: its people.

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Open University eSTEeM 2016 conference, 14 April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 15:57

eSTEeM is the Open University centre for STEM pedagogy. I think this was the second or third eSTEeM conference I’ve been to, and they’ve always been pretty interesting. This blog post is a quick summary of the different talks that I went to. I’m blogging this, so I can remember what happened, and also just in case it might be useful for anyone else who was there.

Opening keynote

Andrew Smith, Senior Lecturer in networking, gave a thought provoking keynote speech entitled ‘our classroom has escaped’. He began by asking everyone who was users of different social media tools: twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Pretty much everyone put up their hands, showing how popular these tools are.

Andrew said ‘we suffer from the paradigm of monolithic learning; what happens in my classroom doesn’t leak out’, and that we are protective of our content.  His point was: things have been ‘escaping’ for some time. As soon as Andrew mentioned this, I thought of the session about Facebook that was held in the most recent associate lecturer development session (OU blog). A question is: how do people outside our classroom see what is going on?

A challenge is that social media exposes us amongst our peers, but it also offers us a way to engage our audience beyond the classroom. But how might we use these tools to teach? One approach is to automate our social media content. For instance, if you know what your content is you can ‘schedule it and plan it’. There is also the potential to engage students when modules are not running, or students are between presentations.

This is all very well, but how do we great engagement? One approach is to ask open questions. The idea is to create a community of practice, where both learners and tutors participate. There is also the importance of relevance. Social media engagement can also connect current studies to current and changing media stories. One of the roles of an educator is to create ‘sparks of interest’, to inspire, and to facilitate learning.

Would the way that you approach social media be different depending upon the subject that you teach? Perhaps. The thing with networking, is that many things are cut and dried; the situation might be very different with subjects from the humanities, for instance.

(In case you’re interested, Andrew told us about two of his Twitter streams: @OUCisco and @OUCyberSec)

Session C: Online practices

There was a lot going on, so I had to choose from one of many different parallel sessions. The first talk in the ‘online practices’ session, by Vic Nicholas, was all about student perceptions of online group work as they studied a ‘classical science module’. One finding (that was, in retrospect, not particularly surprising) was that students appear to have negative views about group work. One thing that I took away from this session was the use of email to prompt students at certain points throughout the module. (This reminded me that tutors have been requesting a ‘send text message to students’ feature for quite a while now).

The next talk took a very different tone: rather than focussing on the students, it was all about how to use technology to empower academic authors. Angela Coe told us about how a tool called OpenEdx (OpenEdx site) was used to create materials for S309 Earth Processes (OU website). OpenEdx was described as a tool that has been created by STEM developers for STEM developers.

Some interesting points were that the tool exposed more about the author and who they are. The use of the tool also encouraged an informal chatty writing style, and supported ‘in content’ discussions. I seem to remember that Angela also spoke about animations and the sharing of data sets using Google Docs. 

The final presentation in this session was entitled, ‘the trials and tribulations of S217’ (which is entitled Physics: from classical to quantum). This is a module that appears to cover some pretty hard (yet fundamental) stuff, such as thermodynamics, optics and quantum physics. An important issue that needed to be addressed in this module was the accessibility of the mathematical materials. I’ve made a note that they authors had to move Tex content to the virtual learning environment (which is a theme that was mentioned in my previous blog about a BCS accessibility conference). 

Session F: MOOCs

The first presentation of this session, entitled ‘Evaluating the design and delivery of a Smart Cities MOOC for an international audience’ was given by Lorraine Hudson from the department of Computing and Communications. The OU is a central partner in an EU funded project that is all about Smart Cities, or how the operation of cities can be supported by the use of different types of IT systems. In some senses the MOOC seems to be about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’ (problems that don’t have an immediately apparent solution). The subject is also necessarily interdisciplinary. 

Michel Wermelinger and Tony Hirst spoke about their experience of designing a MOOC about using the programming language Python for data analysis. In some respects, Michel’s presentation was a ‘warts and all’ take on designing and running a MOOC. The main point that I took away from his presentation was that MOOCs are a lot of hard work for the academics who have to run them, and there is the perpetual question of whether this is time well spent, especially when we bear in mind the fact that around three quarters of the participants already have degrees (which was a point also mentioned in Lorraine’s talk).

The final presentation was by Kris Stutchbury, who spoke about ‘Supporting the teaching of Science in development contexts: OpenScience Lab and TESSA’. TESSA is an abbreviation of Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kris’s project represented a case study, of a snap shot of what is happening within the TESSA project, which can be thought of as an important aspect to the university’s wider social mission. 

Workshop: Listening to graphs

This session was hosted by Chris Hughes and Karen Vines. Their session opened with the observation that graphs are (obviously) a really effective way of communicating a lot numerical data really easily, but how do we communicate the same information for students who have visual impairments?

There are a number of different ways: figure descriptions, the use of tactile diagrams, and the use of sonification, which means converting a visual representation to an audible one. The challenge is, of course, how do we do it? Chris mentioned that sonification has been around for quite a long time; at least one hundred years. One common example of sonification is the Geiger counter, which translates measurements of radiation of audible clicks.

There are a bunch of ‘sound parameters’ that can be manipulated. These are: pitch, timbre, time, loudness and repetition. By way of a simple introduction we were asked to draw a graph based on an equivalent auditory representation. This is all well and good, but there is a compelling research question which needs to be answered, which is: do sonifications actually work during study? Do they help students to learn?

To try to answer this question Chris, Karen and colleagues designed a study. In their study, they gave five visually impaired students and five sighted six learning scenarios: two were from science, one was from mathematics, and the remaining three were from statistics. Of course, since there was such a small sample size, the study was qualitative and (as I interpreted it) exploratory.

The workshop raised some really interesting questions, such as: how do we best teach through figure descriptions? This also emphasised the extent to which existing student knowledge can influence the interpretation of certain descriptions. The final point that I noted was: ‘we need to think of a blended approach, to use different representations; sonifications, descriptions and tactile diagrams’.

Closing Keynote

The closing keynote was by Helen Beetham, and had the title, ‘supporting lifelong learner’s resilience and care in a digital age’.  Helen began with a definition of ‘learning literacies in a digital age’: capabilities that allow an individual to thrive (to live, to learn, to work) in a digital society. There is a JISC funded project called Learning Literacies for the Digital Age (LLiDA) that accompanies this description; an associated project is the JISC Digital Student project (JISC). But what does it mean to be a ‘digital’ student? (If this is a term can ever be defined?) Perhaps it could be able developing effective study habits and specialist practices, using technology to create relationships with peers. 

A connected idea is the notion of ‘digital literacy’. To help us with definitions, there is a JISC information page called Developing students’ Digital Literacy (JISC) that offers a bit of guidance. Another thought is that perhaps ‘the digital divide might be narrower, and deeper’ with respect to how we use digital tools and consume digital learning media. There is also the notion of ‘digital well-being’, and Helen offers a number of digital well-being references (Google Doc). An accompanying idea is ‘digital resilience’.

An interesting point, and one I’ve come across before, is the importance of ‘career and identity management’ (I think I might have come across this term at a HEA event about employability): our different digital identities have the potential to blur, and knowing how we are presented ‘on-line’ is important.

Helen gave us with two other interesting phrases to consider: the notion of our ‘quantified selves’, which points to the question of how much control we have over what data is collected about us, and whether this might connect to our ‘digital capital’.

Reflections

What surprised me about this conference was how much research and scholarship was going on across the university. The poster session was especially memorable. I don’t know how many posters there were, but there were at least twenty, each relating to a different aspect of teaching and learning. Some posters focussed on teaching practice, others focussed on technology.

To get more of a view about what is going on (and what was happening in the other parallel sessions), I really need to find the time to sit down with a cup of tea and work through the conference proceedings.

More information about eSTEeM funded research can also be found by visiting the Open University eSTEeM website (Open University).

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Digital accessibility in higher and further education conference, April 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 5 May 2016, 12:06

I’ve been to a couple of events at the British Computer Society (BCS) before. This one was especially interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are over ten thousand students with disabilities studying at the Open University, and it’s important to know what is going on in the field. Secondly, accessibility in higher education is central to a module that I tutor (H810 accessible on-line learning). Another reason, of course, was to catch up with colleagues in other institutions who work in the digital accessibility sector.

This blog post is intended for internal (and external) colleagues, and students who are studying this area. What follows is a quick summary of all the talks I attended. I also hope this summary might be useful for anyone who was at the conference.

Introductions and opening talks

The conference had the subheading: ‘meeting the needs of the increasing number of students with disabilities’. Lord Addington, spokesman for Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the House of Lords, introduced the event. He spoke about the political context, highlighting the importance of employers. A really important point was: ‘please make sure everyone knows what you can do, to make someone’s life slightly easier; let them know you have practical solutions when you talk to people outside this room’.

Accessibility for students with disabilities

The first speaker was Majid Kahn, who spoke about his experience as an undergraduate student who has a visual impairment. An early point that directly resonated with my own knowledge was the difficulties that can surround acquiring assistive technology through the UK Disability Support Allowance (DSA). Due to delays that are inherent in the process, Majid had to obtain a ‘loan’ computer from the RNIB, which arrived one month after the start of a course.

Majid said (according to my notes) that some software not was accessible through a screen reader. An accompanying challenge was accessing text books (and some books that published in PDF format are not accessible). A practical solution was to directly email the author, who could send a Word version (which would then be accessible). Since many documents and resources are accessed through institutional learning environments, Majid commented that ‘Moodle seems to be inaccessible at the moment’. This was a point that I found interesting, since I know the OU has been putting a work into trying to make Moodle accessible. Perhaps there might be differences between how Moodle is set up and used by different institutions.

Another key point was that the training available at university (in terms of how to use systems, products and assistive technologies) is not adequate. This was connected with the view that although things are heading in the right direction, there is a long way to go, and there is a lack of awareness. Awareness is connected to the importance of communication, and the acceptance that every student is different. In some situations, students may be reluctant to ask for help and advice, and some lecturers might be unwilling to offer additional support. To help to facilitate understanding it was considered important to share information; to help university staff to become more aware of the needs of students. 

An industry perspective on what to teach and how

David Sloan is an ‘accessible user experience engineer’. I know David through his publication on the notion of holistic web accessibility (Word doc, University of Bath). David’s job is to provide advice on how to develop and support digital accessibility, which is something that is often thought of ‘very late in the day’, or is considered as an afterthought.  Put another way: ‘organisations pay us to give bad news’. Rather than reporting on what doesn’t work, organisations and universities shouldn’t really focus on ‘evaluating and repairing’, but should instead focus on ‘improving practices and processes from the beginning’.

Some key problems include the lack of web development skills, understanding that not everyone uses a mouse for access, the use of colour, and media accessibility, i.e. offering alternative (useful) descriptions for graphics.

A fundamental problem can relate to the organisational perspective; accessibility not being connected to good experience design, or accessibility being ‘hived off’ into another part of interaction design. The key point is that accessibility needs to be built into development processes, and this relates to the idea of an ‘accessibility design maturity continuum’ http://uxfor.us/mature-it (Paciello group); accessibility shouldn’t be added as an afterthought.

There are a number of challenges for educators: the importance of integrating accessibility into the curriculum, that digital literacy and accessibility communication should be embedded into all subjects (and not just information technology or computing sciences), and that it should be integrated into learning activities, experiences and assessment. It is also important to include accessibility as a core professional skill.  David went on to suggest that there might be increased professionalization of accessibility, and mentioned something called TeachAccess.org (TeachAccess website).

As David was talking, I had a thought which relates to the complexities that are inherent in accessibility. Whilst it is possible to create accessible resources and accessible software, every learner is different in terms of their personal needs and their learning strategies. Learners need to develop expertise and mastery over their tools. This is, of course, something that takes time.

Accessible STEM: Anticipating and resolving barriers

Emma Cliffe works in the accessibility resource centre in the University of Bath. Emma helps to provide accessible solutions for maths, computing, and subjects that present a lot of diagrams.

When it comes to maths, a really important point is that students are expected to produce assignments that their lecturers can read; students invariably need to show their working to demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts. One of the issues is that some digital formats (such as PDFs, for example) are ‘lossy’, which means that they lose some of their important semantic information when PDF documents are created.

Lecturers need to provide materials in a format that retains the ‘semantic structure’ (or meaning) of the maths that they aim to teach. Emma mentioned a range of tools and formats: structured Word documents, structured HTML documents, MathML, or Tex plus something called MathJax, Markdown, or ePub3. 

As a brief aside, Tex is a typesetting language which is used with Latex, which mathematicians often use to write technical papers. I’ve used Latex in anger only once, and found it very difficult! I hadn’t heard of something called MathJax before.

 A key question is: how do you author mathematics? The answer is: it is a skill that needs to be learnt (and, of course, takes time to master). This area is one that is rapidly changing, and is difficult for disabled support allowance (DSA) assessors to keep up.

Emma moved onto looking at a subject that that cropped up in my undergraduate studies: finite state automata, which are usually represented through diagrams (using circles and arrows). A finite stage machine is an abstract machine that moves between different states of operation. The thing is, it’s pretty difficult to describe them. To emphasise this point, we were shown different types of descriptions, some more descriptive and wordy than others.

Reflecting on David’s session, I noted that we need to help students to find a choice of tools that work for them. We also need to embed accessibility into procurement processes, and figure out how to integrate accessibility in our teaching (since non accessible students can also benefit from any adjustments that we make). Collaboration is, of course, important too.

Accessibility and MOOCs

EA Draffan from the University of Southampton spoke of a range of different issues that related to accessibility. One point (and I don’t know whether this is true) is that the majority of learners are either middle aged, or elderly.

EA made the really important point that all technologies can be assistive. Some important questions to ask those working in the academic context are: why are we using certain types of multimedia? What are its barriers for use? Do all learners need it? Is personalisation possible?

Rather than presenting research findings, the main point of EA’s presentation seemed to be: MOOC designers and developers need to be mindful about the importance of accessibility. EA went onto talk about different types of accessibility checkers. (There is, of course, the accompanying issue that it can be sometimes difficult to understand and interpret the results from these checkers).

On the subject of MOOCs, I have a couple of research questions (one of which was touched on by EA). The first one is: what do MOOCs about accessibility actually teach? And, secondly, are MOOCs themselves accessible? What are the practical barriers that learners face, and what do they do to get around them?

Parallel session: accessible and adaptable materials and content

The afternoon parallel session consisted of three presentations. The first talk was about ‘how to make PDF documents accessible in virtual environments’, and was given by colleagues from AbilityNet (AbilityNet website). The advice was simple, familiar and effective: create documents using accessible tools, know your audience, don’t use long paragraphs, use headings, use bullet points to break up text, avoid graphics of text, don’t use colours to provide information, and use alternative text for images. Importantly: always consider the semantic structure of a document.

Next up, was an accessibility consultant called Ted Page, who said there were differences between technical accessibility and content accessibility. I think this means that event though something might be accessible through assistive technology, the corresponding content, if read out by a screen reader, might not make any sense at all. PDFs are, apparently, a reasonable solution, but I was interested to hear that MathML is coming to PDF documents (which should add more semantic structure to documents). This echoes Emma’s point that this is a fast moving area.

The third presentation from this session was by Joanna Hunt, from Blackboard. Joanna spoke about a new on-line real-time conferencing system that may replace Elluminate (which is the basis of OU Live, the OU’s real-time tutorial system), which relies on a Java plug-in. This additional bit of Java software can sometimes be a barrier for users. This connects to a wider point that usability and accessibility are intrinsically connected. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a feel for how the new Blackboard system may work (and its accessibility) since it is still under development.

Closing Keynote: Employment prospects of STEM graduates with Disabilities

Peter Looms, from the Technical University of Demark addressed a range of wider issues. Not only is accessibility important in terms of learning resources and classroom activities, but equal access to social activities (of course) is also important. This point is related to the social model of disability. There should be a movement away from solving problems, to removing barriers.

Other points related to the costs of exclusion: there are societal and economic impacts. Assistive technology and digital tools can often be expensive. There are also benefits to inclusion. Peter mentioned Kyle Schwanke, a Microsoft Xbox engineer who has ASD, and touched on the importance of diversity and recruitment. (More information about Kyle Schwanke can be found in a Microsoft People article). The point is that diversity should be viewed as an asset, not a burden. 

Discussion and reflections

During each of the two parallel sessions, each group was asked to consider what might be four points (or steps) to digital accessibility.

Here is a list of the combined points: the importance of consultation (with students), professionalise good teaching practice, improve access to information, put skills before disability (and use the social model of disability), consider using game technology for educating tutors, the importance of doing things the right way, the importance of standards, the importance of involving users, training tutors, and working together.

The final discussions centred upon whether the BCS could embed more accessibility into its core mission, and the extent to which the Teaching Excellent Framework (Times Higher article) may influence practice.

My main concluding thought is that there was one aspect to the conference that wasn’t a surprise, and another aspect that was a surprise. In some respects, all of the subjects and issues that were discussed were quite familiar to me: I am aware of the challenges that surround mathematics, and that we should not be ‘retrofitting’ accessibility to digital materials (but should, instead, think about accessibility from the outset). The surprise was the feeling that there is still a long way to go when it came to educating people about the importance of accessibility.

There are (at least) two reasons why it is important. Firstly, making something accessible, makes things easier for everyone. Secondly, we a moral and a legal responsibility to do something about it. 

For those who are interested, resources from the conference have been made available on the BCS website.

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Christopher Douce

Associate Lecturer Conference: London School of Economics, 19 March 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Apr 2016, 12:20

This blog is a quick summary of an Associate Lecturer development conference that was held at the London School of Economics on 19 March 2016.

There are three parts to this post: a summary of a keynote by vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks, a summary of research into the use of Facebook by students, and a summary of a session that was for Computing, Engineering and Technology students. This final session has led to the creation of a resource that could be useful for all OU associate lecturers (which has also been included).

Before going any further, one thing that I should say is that these are my own notes and reflections. Other attendees might well have viewed proceedings from a slightly different perspectives (or, understood things slightly differently). 

Keynote: Peter Horrocks

Peter began his keynote by introducing himself, saying that he was very familiar with the part of London where the AL development conference was located; it was, of course, just around the corner from the BBC World Service, where he used to be a director.

Peter talked about the OU emerging strategy and the ‘vital role that associate lecturers can play’, whilst acknowledging the contribution that the AL community makes to the success of the university.

Interestingly, Peter said that there had been improvements to the ‘political language’ that was being used in relation to part-time learning. I also made a note of some kind of review in lifelong learning that might take place, and a possible expansion of the student loan book, which was something that Peter would mention later on during his talk.

After his introduction, Peter played a video clip of Geoffrey Crowther, the founding chancellor of the university. I noted down the following quote, which relates to the university objective to ‘to cater for many thousands of people who do not get higher education’.

Peter reported that when the university was formed, higher education participation was under 15%. It is now, however, close to 50%. He went on to say it was important to understand that there had been a substantial decline in OU student numbers in recent years and this has had a significant knock on effect on the overall income to the university. A challenge was that as the university shrunk, it becomes harder for the university to continue to have a positive impact on wider society.

Peter did, however, say that there was the intention to get the university growing again. The number of students studying for diplomas and certificates had fallen, and these qualifications had not been replaced. He also reported that there was a movement towards certificates and diplomas being ‘loanable’ qualifications. A degree was considered to a ‘big’ (or ‘high’?) ‘hurdle’ to get over, and there might be the need to adjust the ‘university offer’.

Another interesting point that that profile of OU students has changed. When the university started in the 1970s, 25% of the original students were women. Women now account for 57% of the student body. (I also remember hearing anecdotal evidence that the student body is getting younger too, but I don’t have the stats to back this up).

Peter then went on to talk about his ‘students first’ strategy, which was presented through a ‘graphical device’. Key points included the importance of ‘student success’ and ‘innovation for impact’. University ‘people’ were presented as a layer at the bottom of the graphic. My own view is that the university ‘people’ should occupy a more central place in the strategy: it is people who offer students tuition, it is people who support those tutors, and it is people who write the modules and people who carry out world leading research.

Another sentence that I noted was that ‘[we have] an enormous challenge to turn around [a] steep decline in students’ and everyone is to be involved with this. There were, however, have some suggestions. A thought was to give more pastoral support for students, perhaps ‘a named personal tutor for the duration of the student’s time with the OU’. (This is an idea that reminds me to the role of the ‘tutor councillor’; a role that had disappeared by the time I joined the university in 2006). Other thoughts included having associate lecturers more involved in module and content creation (which implicitly connects to current AL contract negotiations). All these points took us to a university vision statement, which was: ‘to reach more students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches society’.

After his keynote, Peter ran a short question and answer session. The first question was very direct, and addressed many concerns that were held by many of the full time staff those who were attending the event. The question was: ‘if we are going to be putting students first, why are we closing seven regional centres, where over three hundred dedicated and experienced people will lose their jobs?’ His reply was that student support will be offered in terms of curriculum, and will not be constrained by geography, and there will be benefits by co-locating different functions together. Another benefit that has been cited has been increased opening hours for the student support workers.

I see a lot of the hard work that goes on in the regional centres, and I fundamentally disagree with the way that the restructuring is taking place.  I have previously written in an earlier blog post about all the different functions that take place in the regional centres, and I seriously worry that the rate at which the centres to close creates serious operational risks for the university. One of the most important relationships that a student has is with their tutor, and regional centres, of course, play a fundamental role in helping to support our tutors.

Another question centred about why the university was investing in FutureLearn, its division that offers free on-line courses, or MOOCs (which are known as: massive open on-line courses). I’ve noted down two answers: firstly, that FutureLearn plans to be profitable by 2018 (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember the entire reply). This was an interesting response, since I’m baffled by its business model. Secondly, MOOCs are in keeping with the university’s mission to be open to people, places and ideas. The availability of MOOCs is something to be applauded, but a perpetual worry is that MOOCs are very often studied by students who already have degree level qualifications. (One statistic that I’ve heard is that three quarters of MOOC students already have a degree).

If MOOCs play a role in the university’s widening participation agenda, another related worry is that the capacity to run national widening participation initiatives (perhaps supported by MOOCs?) will be diminished by dismantling the university regional network.

Other points related to the recognition of associate lecturers. One point was, ‘we’re not just vital; we’re core’. Another point was: ‘if you want success, you have got to value everyone here, and our commitment to students, society and equality’. These are all points I totally agree with. Associate lecturers are core: they are the people who offer our students one to one support.

From my own perspective, the staff in the regions play a fundamental role in the operation of the university, and it is more than ‘just a shame’ the dedicated staff in the various regions are being faced with the human trials of relocation or redundancy.

The Lure of Facebook

Every AL development conference offers tutors a choice of different events. For this conference, I attended ‘The Lure of Facebook’ by Leigh-Anne Perryman and Tony Coughlan.

The workshop opened with the suggestion that participation in VLE forums is falling, and perhaps there is a movement from formal learning space to informal spaces. There are, it seems, hundreds of student led study groups, and many of them are thriving.

Their study looked at ten groups, four disciplines, and three different degree levels. This accounted for 2600 participants. The research questions were simple: are the groups educational, do they facilitate learning, and what kinds of activities take place?

As with any kind of research that involves human participants, ethics are considered to be important. Only groups that were thoroughly open to the public were studied.

Findings

There were an ecosystem of groups. Each discipline area seems to have an umbrella group. People come and go between different groups. It is interesting that students from previous presentations pass on tips to the current generation of students. Students also belong to different life groups, such as textbook exchange groups, alumini groups, and regional groups.

Returning to the research questions, are they educational? Differences were observed between the different levels, in terms of the technical and academic content that was shared. The range of practices were interesting: there was evidence of peer guidance, emotional support, discussion of module context, and tips on how to become a student. The main conclusion was that these groups are complementary to other support that is offered by the university.

Discussion

One of the thoughts that was running through my mind was the relevance of some JISC research (or a JISC meeting) that seemed to emphasise the differences between online spaces: spaces that are provided by the university, and those that are facilitated by students. I seem to recall the view that the university shouldn’t intrude on these student created spaces

This thought connected to an interesting discussion around the issue of on-line behaviours, such as trolling and bullying. Whilst the university cannot police private or external groups, students still need to adhere to policies about student conduct.

It was really interesting to hear that groups seems to have a lifecycle: groups come and go. I’m sure that this was discussed, but I was left wondering about what exactly characterised the lifecycle of a Facebook group.

Faculty session

These conferences represent useful opportunities for tutors in a particular faculty to get together and share practices and experiences (and this, of course, is one of the greatest advantages of being ‘physically rooted’ in a location). I attended the Computing, Technology and Engineering session. Rather than leading this time, I decided I would participate in my role of an associate lecturer.

The session opened by a brief update my Matthew Nelson, who is a staff tutor who works in the Computing and Communications department. Mathew shared what he knew about the group tuition policy, the associate lecturer contract, and the closure of the regional centres. 

The next part of the session was facilitated by my colleague Sue Truby. Our task was to ‘unpick’ and discuss the different aspects of the tutor role, which is a resource that is featured on the TutorHome website. In other words, we were asked to contribute to a resource that describes ‘what we all do’ as tutors.

We were put into three small groups. Each group sat at a table, and we were given between three and four sheets of paper. These sheets had a ‘headline’ activity which was taken from the TutorHome resource. During the session, we moved between different tables, adding comments to each of these pages. At the end of the session, all the sheets were collected, and a summary created. What follows is a lightly edited version of that summary which was sent to me by my colleague Sue (different tutors, of course, may well have presented slightly different answers):

Welcome students. Send a motivational group email telling them about the tutor group forum. Post a message on the tutor group forum and get them talking with an introductory question (eg say something unusual about themselves and the module). Give the students a ring, and certainly ring them if they don’t reply to the introductory email.

Identify students’ needs. Look at all the records that you have available, and look out for special circumstances (module history, age etc). Send a message to those identified, encouraging them to tell you if they need something. Other information that might be useful may include past TMA performance (and other flags).

Provide correspondence tuition. Send out reminders to students to find out if extensions are needed. Use the ETMA summary and comments on the script to offer custom advice with personalised and constructive remarks, whilst always remembering to be positive. Be sure to acknowledge the work students have done and comment on progress. Offer feedback by using a ‘praise’ sandwich.

Provide academic support. Tutors can do this by answering academic questions, referring students to the student support team, helping to develop key skills by offering direction to relevant materials, keeping on-line discussion forums focussed on the subject, and plan tutorials to include support on the most challenging parts of the module.

Provide proactive support. Contact a student if no assignments are submitted. If there is no contact, refer students to the student support team, and offer feedback on assignments for the whole group as well as individual students.

Develop students’ study skills. Tutors can help with this by encouraging students to reflect on learning. Suggest study skills resources to support development (based on individual needs). Ask students to do an activity before a tutorial. Offer exam advice and revision before the exam. During tutorials, offer advice about completing an assignment, and consider providing additional support sessions. Key skills: development of note taking, revision and examination preparation. Regarding exams, consider practice hand writing: it is physically demanding to write for three hours at a time.

Monitor student progress. Check student progress towards next TMA. Chase those students who have been awarded a long extension. Monitor which students attend on-line sessions and on-line tests (where appropriate). 

Provide study related advice. Answer student questions by email, forum, or telephone. Refer students to study skills website, and provide practical advice through correspondence tuition (ETMA summary comments, and on-script comments)

Provide feedback within the OU. Offer feedback about module units by communicating with the module team. Contribute to module forums by sharing views and experience with fellow tutors (tutor forums). Contribute to associate lecturer CDSA and staff tutor feedback. Contribute to AL development events, and ask questions that are important to be asked.

Work online. Monitor student activity by reviewing forum discussion threads. Make use of the eTMA system and other tools that are needed to support the module that you tutor on. Give students updates about how TMA marking is progressing by posting updates to marking threads.

Develop your knowledge and practice. Become a student by taking advantage of the OU fee waiver. Attend associate lecturer development events. Use associate lecturer development fund to keep in touch with developments in your field. Develop on-line skills with tools such as OU Live, by seeking out and completing training. 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all associate lecturers who contributed to creating this resource, and for Sue Truby for running this session and collating all the discussion points.

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Christopher Douce

A brave new world of AL development?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 12 Apr 2016, 11:14

One part of my job that I take really seriously is associate lecturer development. I've been to loads of AL development days. It was through these days that I, essentially, learnt how to become an effective teacher and facilitator. It is true, however, that I was pretty confused and bewildered during many of these events – but, gradually this feeling dissipated as I became more experienced.

AL development has always been a regional activity. Even though many of the regional centres are closing, I have heard that the university is still committed to running these events. I do, however, worry. There are a whole bunch of unanswered questions, such as: will we be able to effectively plan things in the ‘brave new world’ without all of our English regional centres?

Back in February, I attended what was my first ever ‘STEM faculty’ (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) AL development event. It was held in Kent’s Hill Conference Centre, which is just across the road from the OU campus. Since a large proportion of the tutors had to travel, the university laid on accommodation and kindly fed us all.

What follows is a quick summary of the event, or, my main ‘take away’ points. I hope to submit a very different version of this article to the Snowball Associate Lecturer newsletter when I’ve got a moment.

STEM Faculty – why, how and where we are

The keynote was made by Anne De Roek, dean of MCT. Anne spoke of ‘shifting sands’ (in terms of developments in STEM, and in the university), and mentioned that division between subjects, such as science and mathematics is artificial. A thought that came to mind was: surely everything is Mathematics, right? I countered this with another thought, which was ‘I’m not sure the social scientists would agree…’

Anne went onto talk about jobs in STEM, the importance of engineering, security and privacy in IT, and the ethics of technology. Another point was that there were opportunities for growth: there will be new curriculum areas: an MSc in Space, modules in electronics, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering, and the availability of ‘shared research facilities’. Anne also presented a bunch of stats. One notable figure was that there are over 1,800 STEM associate lecturers in just one faculty.

The STEM faculty is being made up of the two ‘heritage’ faculties: Science and MCT. One of the arguments in favour of the faculty mergers is that faculties will then have more of a direct responsibility for retention and progression: the STEM faculty will ‘own’ their students more directly than ever before.

There is clearly a lot going on: work on the ‘student seamless journey’, work on subject specific bootcamps, a review of level 1 assessment, forthcoming changes to the academic year, and a new approach to induction. There were other changes: changes in the staff tutor contract, which means that many of us will become home workers; there are changes to governance and management of curriculum, and in the world outside the OU, there are private providers clamouring to offer degree apprenticeships.

At the end of Anne’s talk, there was a short question and answer session. One of the key points that I noted down was that ‘ALs knowledge of students is not getting through to the people in the student support teams’, with the implication that tutors are not as effectively sharing knowledge about the needs of students as they could.  Other points related to travelling time to tutorials, and the FutureLearn MOOCs (which are paid for by OU capital funds). Anne also emphasised that ‘this faculty has no intention of going on-line only’. Colleagues in MCT had been worried, because as far as I know, Science (I believe) delivers all their modules on-line.

Group Tuition Policy Implementation

The second presentation of the day introduced the Group Tuition Policy (or GTP, as it is known). It was described as being all about increasing student choice of 'synchronous teaching'. One of its aims is to publish timetables a time table of events three months in advance. Students will be able to make decisions whether to go to events, since its purpose (which is linked to module learning objectives) will be described in advance. This means, from the staff tutor perspective, timetables have to be planned five months before the module start date. I have to confess, this is a bit of a worry, particularly when we’ve got to deal with new modules.

A really good bit of the policy is the concept of an academic community. This, I understand, is going to be up to the staff tutors (with help from the module team). This may, of course require us to do some more work, but I think it is important work that needs to be done. The aim of academic community building is also in keeping with the intention of improving the student learning experience and academic success.

Learning events can be either face to face, or can take place online.  Another principle is that if there is a face to face event, there must be an online alternative. In principle, this also sounds like a great idea. The challenge, of course, is that face to face and on-line can never be directly equivalent, since they afford different pedagogies: one teaching modality will be able to convey certain learning objectives better than others.

Tutor groups will be organised in clusters of between six and eight students, and boundaries between clusters will be based on student density (I’m not sure exactly what this means, and my notes are not giving away their secrets). There may be either two or three clusters per module, and these will be managed by a ‘cluster manager’. The ‘cluster manager’ will choose venues where face to face teaching events will happen, but at the moment, I have no idea how these will be booked.

A key bit to the GTP will be something called the learning events manager, or the LEM: a new YAOUTLA (or, also known as ‘Yet Another Open University Three Letter Abbreviation’)

Group Tuition Policy Workshop

After the GTP talk, tutors were encourage to attend a number of different events. I decided to attend a GTP workshop (which I thought might be useful, since I’ll be responsible for scheduling some of the GTP events). The workshop was facilitated by three colleagues are performing some research to review tuition practice at MCT.

We were put into small groups and shared ideas about how the policy might be realised.  We chatted about the scheduling of timetables and events. Another topic that I noted was the question of whether there would be mechanisms to email a group of students who signed up to remind them about an event.

Panel session

The final session of the day was a question and answer panel session, which was run by a group of staff tutors. One important point that was discussed was the associate lecturer contract negotiations; since I’m both an associate lecturer, and someone who is a staff manager (who is the designated line manager for associate lecturers), I’m also very interested in these discussions.

I have to confess that I’m really worried about the new contract, for the simple reason that I have no idea how it will affect my role. I have, however, decided not to worry about it too much, though, for the reason that negotiations are still going on, and the final character of the new contract might be very different to the picture that is being painted through the snippets of information that I receive from time to time.

Another important theme was the impact of the regional closures. All MCT contracts are to be moved to Manchester by the beginning of January 2017, which feels like a very short timescale, especially since contracts from seven regions have to be moved to one region all in one go.

A final point that I’ve noted down was a reference to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Tutors were encourage to record any teaching qualifications they might have. I haven’t had a look into it, but there’s a possibility that the TEF might be allied or connected with Higher Education Academy (HEA) professional recognition.

The university currently supports a route to application through something called OpenPAD (an abbreviation for Professional Academic Development), which is currently being refreshed. There was some talk about that the Institute of Educational Technology’s Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice might get reinstated, but there were no clear conclusions at this point.

Reflections

This first STEM Faculty AL development event was overwhelming. I don’t know how many associate lecturers were there, but I seem to recall someone mentioning that there might have been around ‘two hundred’ attending that one event.

In terms of getting a key message out about the group tuition policy and some of the changes happening across the university, the event certainly did its job for those who attended, but I’m mindful that this event just represented the start of a new way of doing things.
I did, however, find it difficult to find everyone I wanted to chat to. I personally prefer the smaller, more defined regional events.

From my side, I’ll continue to do my best to make as much noise as I can to make sure that these smaller (regional) events still happen, but I do worry that the constant movement towards centralisation might make it harder to run the development and training events that help our tutors to make a difference.

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Christopher Douce

Locations and equality: everyone has a place

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2016, 08:56

I have loads of different interests. Computer science, motorcycles and writing are just three of them. There is one interest that cut across different aspects of my life, and that is the academic subject of disability studies. I’m personally touched by the subject and I tutor on a module (H810 accessible on-line learning) that relates to disability and accessibility.

It’s because of this interest, that I joined a London regional equal opportunities and diversity (EO&D) group when I started working at the OU in London.

The EO&D group is a body of staff that promotes Equality and Diversity in the London and South East Open University regions.  The group was formed as a result of a university wide initiative to ensure that university staff are aware of Equal Opportunities and Diversity issues.  Following the official end of the project, the London group remained, primarily because the issue of cultural diversity is especially significant in London.

Even though the group doesn’t have any specific power or authority, it is a group that (in my opinion) is pretty important: its strength lies in the commitment of its volunteers and the networks that they have fostered. The group offers a safe space for staff to raise issues and concerns. It has also been a group that has discussed and debated the implication of university policies. The group has also been responsible for running a series of thought provoking events; we held an event to raise awareness of mental health issues, and recently held event that invited a series of speakers who aimed to challenge our perceptions about a range of different issues.

Closure of regional centres

Some members of the London and South East region equal opportunities and diversity group collectively made a submission to what the university called the locations analysis project. The submission contained a series of points that expressed concerns about what the impact on equality and diversity might be if many regional centres in England closed.

Following a recent EO&D meeting, it was decided to make this submission public. The members of the group are a great bunch: they want to support students, the university, and its mission; but like many of us, they worry about the impact that substantial organisational changes may have on the students that we work to support.

The following points are, pretty much, unedited from the original submission. One additional point has been added, and this relates to student retention, national flexibility and study support. I personally welcome the opportunity to see some of my students for additional support sessions which take place in the Camden office, and I worry that this ability to see real students might be taken away from me.

Submission to the project

This document summarises the position of some of the members of the group and requests the Locations Analysis (LA) team consider a number of very important issues that directly relate to Equality and Diversity.  These points, in turn, relate to the university as a whole. 

Members of the EO&D group rejects the notion that the locations analysis will improve the student experience and help the university to support students.  Instead, the proposals have the potential to undermine the university’s mission. During a meeting, the following points were raised:

  1. Some groups of students will be disproportionately affected. These include: students with disabilities, offender learners, students who are studying within secure institutions (such as psychiatric hospitals), and vulnerable adults.
  2. The London region is the home for an accessibility assessment centre.  In the LA proposals, this centre will be closed, requiring students to visit other centres.
  3. The regional centre is used to run examinations for protected groups of students, such as offender learners who have been released on licence, students who have disabilities, and vulnerable adults.  Since the examinations are run on the university’s premises, the academic integrity and accessibility of venues can be assured.  This facility will no longer be available if the locations analysis plans go ahead.
  4. Detailed in depth knowledge is required to match invigilators to students who have disabilities. This knowledge is based around the location of the invigilators, and the location of the student. This knowledge will be lost if the LA plans, as they stand, go ahead and staff are forced to take voluntary severance, putting the student experience and successful running of examinations at risk.
  5. Detailed in depth knowledge and personal relationships are needed to be built between the university and education officers in prisons and secure units. If these links are lost due to the LA proposals, this will directly and negatively impact on the student experience.  Allocation of tutors to prisoners and vulnerable students very much depend on local knowledge and links to faculty staff, who know about local tutors who are willing and able to support different groups of students.
  6. There will be direct impacts on the university’s ability to check, assess and validate the accessibility of examination and tutorial centres.
  7. The LA proposals will make it more difficult to ensure that tutorial centres and exam centres can more readily respond to individual and unique accessibility adjustments.
  8. Vulnerable students, and students with disabilities will no longer be able to visit the regional centre to gain first hand practical advice from faculty staff and advisors.
  9. Widening participation is both a university and a national policy. Closing regional centres in demographically diverse areas will make it more difficult to plan, instigate and organise focussed widening participation events.  In essence, the LA scheme will make it more difficult to respond to changing and unique differences between diverse parts of England. 
  10. The experience from the closure of East Grinstead clearly suggests that women are disproportionately affected purely because of the number of women who work in regional centres.
  11. The closure of the regions will significantly affect staff who have caring responsibilities.  These members of staff will be unable to readily relocate to another centre, if this option is open to them. 
  12. The following members of the EO&D group holds the view that the LA plans will significantly affect the university’s ability to institutionally take account of the national diversity within England.
  13. The university considers student retention to be a strategically important issue. Not having regional centres will reduce the university’s ability to run, plan and schedule any future nationally focussed retention or recruitment initiatives or programmes. Programmes might include face to face induction sessions and study skills workshops to support level 1 students, or students who may be struggling with different aspects of their studies.

Final points

Most of the points that are here are not about staff; they are about students. I could write a lot more about other impacts, such as our institutional ability to support our diverse group of associate lecturers. I also worry that in dismantling a lot of our organisational structures we will lose a lot of what is good about our organisation: the knowledge and expertise of those who support our students.

When this submission was made, the EO&D group requested that the locations analysis team freely publishes an equality analysis to clearly spell out how they plan to address equality issues and diversity issues. Planning for the closures is going ahead before anyone has seen sight of this analysis.

I look forward to seeing it when it is available. I hope it is available soon.

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Christopher Douce

Regional closures: what will the impact be?

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I work in the Open University London office as a regional academic, or ‘staff tutor’ as we are colloquially known.

A couple of weeks ago the university council met. One of the outcomes from this meeting meant that the London regional centre (as we know it) will close, and the office space will be given over to FutureLearn, an Open University funded MOOC provider, who are currently housed in the British Library.

London is one of seven regional offices that are going to be shut. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the impact of these closures are going to be very significant; significant to the university as a whole, significant in the way that we support tutors and students and significant in terms of my day job.

Here’s the most important point: I need an office to do my job.

I need a space to interview tutors. I need a space where I can have one to one chats with students who might be struggling with important parts of their studies. The university needs a space where disability and accessibility assessments can be performed. We also need a space to run tutorials and one off associate lecturer development events. We also need a space to run, and plan, regional outreach and widening participation events. We need a space where we can run our bi-annual AL development conference. We also need a space where we can work with colleagues in other higher education institutions and run academic workshops.

Without a regional centre, or an office that I can regularly use many of these activities will become significantly harder to do. Also, the way that the university supports its associate lecturers (who are, arguably, the most important people within the university when it comes to student support and retention) will be significantly impoverished. It will be harder to get tutors in the same room together, because there will be more barriers and hurdles in our way.

There are other direct impacts on those of us who are staff tutors. One significant impact is that we will have less clerical and administrative support. I work with a great bunch of people who can help me to solve problems. If I need students moved between different groups, I can ask (which means to ‘speak to’) colleagues who get things done. These great people also help us to check documents and to prepare interviews for associate lecturers. When the faculty administrative support moves to Manchester, I shall miss them.

Finally, it’s going to be hard to create and sustain a community of staff tutors. We all need to share war stories about different aspects of our jobs. We need that space to share experience: this sharing of practice is, of course, a really important part of developing excellent teaching. By excellent teaching, I’m not just talking about face to face teaching: I’m talking about correspondence teaching and everything that goes with it.

Working at home will make it harder for us to do all these things: we will lose an important human aspect to our job that is really important. Losing our regional centres will make things harder for us and our tutors. And, sadly, I fear this will also make it harder for us to support our students. 

Other blogs:

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Christopher Douce

I’ve voted

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Oct 2015, 12:25

I remember the 2002 and 2003 fire fighter strikes. I remember it not because I was involved in it, or knew anyone who was a fire fighter; I remember it because of the opinions I held about it. I thought they shouldn’t be striking: I felt that their call for a thirty nine percent increase in pay was ridiculous, and they shouldn’t be holding the country to ransom. I also remember being confused: how did it get that bad? Surely the employer and the unions should have been talking about things before they got to the point of strikes?

I’m writing this blog after having just voted in a union ballot about industrial action in response to university plans to close seven out of nine regional centres. I voted in favour of industrial action, and this blog is about why.

A bit of background

It took me a long time to make a decision about joining UCU, the university lecturers union. I would even say that I agonised over it. I think the reason why it took so long is that I have been historically grumpy about the ‘mischief’ that unions can cause. Being a Londoner, I’m occasionally grumpy about strikes held by the transport unions.

I really enjoy helping students. I love my job, and I love making a positive difference to those who, ultimately, I serve. I even (to a degree) enjoy the admin stuff that comes part and parcel of my role. It’s a real privilege and a pleasure to see students achieving. One of the best parts of my jobs is helping out at the London degree ceremonies. Another ‘best’ part of my job is working with such a great team of tutors who are all awesome people.

My thinking went along the lines of: ‘if I’ve chosen to work in higher education, and love it, then why on earth would I go on strike, when my actions would negatively impact those students who I ultimately want to serve?’

I joined UCU when the university decided, very quickly, to close down a regional centre; the very same regional centre where I was taught how to teach. That was an eye opener: if they could close down one regional centre pretty easily, then how about all the other regional centres?

Management decision

The university management state that the closures of regional centres will improve services to students since it will free up capital to employ more people to work in the remaining two centres. My view, which is informed by working ‘on the ground’ amongst people who make the university operate, is that the recommendations will negatively affect students.

This isn’t just speculation: this is a view that has been informed by witnessing the disruption and impact that the closure of one region has had on the university. The proposals that I’ve seen suggest that they’re going to close seven regions. This idea fills me with terror. The fundamental objection that I have about the plans is that they are incomplete. The plans only recommend closures; they do not contain any information about how the closures are to be achieved. 

A few weeks ago, I spoke up in a meeting and said, ‘I am an engineer, and this affects how I look at things; I like to understand how things work, and there is nothing in these plans that suggests how these changes are going be made’. I feel that I would be personally negligent, as an employee of the university if I didn’t raise concerns and add to the chorus of opposition that I am hearing from faculties.

Put another way, the university is putting public money at stake by forgetting a whole aspect of the picture: you don’t move your home to another country without first understanding whether it is possible to do so.  Plus, even if it is possible, you need to carefully figure out all your removal costs.

Here’s another view that builds on this ‘home moving’ metaphor: the plans that have been proposed puts the whole institution at risk by dismantling those important human connections, knowledge and links that have been built up over a considerable amount of time. Things work because of the connections that exist between people. New ways of working that have been set up will have to be dismantled and moved wholesale to a whole new place: either Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham.

Moving to a new home is difficult, especially if you don’t have a support structure. The proposals imply that everyone is moving everywhere at the same time, and they’re not going to have a support structure, and they’re going to lose the very people who know how to make things work.

The response to this concern has been simple: we will have more money to hire more people. The fact is that things are never that simple: it takes time to acquire institutional expertise and knowledge: it takes time to acquire the skills and knowledge to support students. From a practical perspective: it takes time to learn how to use the university’s IT systems, and it takes even longer to learn about how to deal with all the interesting exceptions that we invariably have to deal with.

Considering the practicalities

I need to interview people, help people, and develop people. People have to have their degree certificates checked. Students will, invariably, forget their ID cards when they go into examination centres.  Examination centres will need to be checked for their accessibility, and that they conform to university regulations. People will need to check the accessibility of tutorial venues. People will also have to respond quickly to last minute changes if one tutorial centre is flooded or closed. It will be significantly more difficult to offer important one to one support with students who have disabilities, or have meetings to help and encourage students.

The locations analysis recommendations do not consider any of these issues.

I’ll put it another way: I do my job by working closely with regional colleagues. The proposals suggest that these important relationships are to be dismembered, and I will be forced to interface with a student support 'call-centre' that will be staffed by new employees who be still learning how to do their job at exactly the same time that students will be starting new courses.

Perhaps I’m not party to the discussions, but no one seems to be discussing how things are going to work.

If the regional centres are to close, the support that I offer tutors and students would be substantially and irrevocably impoverished. My current role would become difficult, if not impossible,

The academic voice

On Wednesday 14 October, the university senate met. Senate is the academic body of the university and has representatives from all faculties. Colleagues tabled a motion that begins: ‘[the senate] advises the Council to reject the current recommendation … of the Locations Review on the grounds that it is operationally and reputationally very high risk and fails adequately to support the academic mission of the university’.

A UCU news item summarises the response: ‘The Senate, which represents the academic oversight of the institution voted by 41 to 31 to advise that the plans be rejected, with nine members abstaining, and called on the university to explore other options.’

Following senate, a message was circulated that implied that even though the ‘academic voice’ was considered, nothing would change: the 'plans' would still go ahead. Here is a key sentence: ‘VCE has decided to take the [locations analysis] recommendation forward to Council for resolution’. This, in my view, is unacceptable: management are just not listening.

The faculties represent departments, which then, of course, teach the subjects that students study. In a university, which is all about teaching, learning and research, the academics should be the first group of people that the university should listen to. Their voice should matter. If it is ignored, then we cease to be a university.

Summary

When I was new to the university in 2006, a student asked me, ‘are you taking industrial action?’ My student was worried about his tuition; he was coming to the end of the module that I was tutoring, and subsequently, the end of his degree.

My response was simple. It was: ‘no, I’m not striking; I don’t believe that the services given to students should be affected’.

I’ve voted for strike action for exactly the same reason, that: ‘I don’t believe that the services given to students should be affected’.

So far, concerns from staff and faculties appear to have fallen on deaf ears. This is not right. One thing is certain: this is not the university that I joined almost ten years ago. I haven’t voted because I want to, but because I feel morally obliged to do so: for the good of the staff, the university, and our students.

A quick note

I should say that all posts on this blog represent my own opinions and are not that of either the Open University, or UCU. In case you're interested, I've written another post called don't close our regional centres about all the great work that Open University regional centres do to support students.

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Christopher Douce

Don’t close our regional centres

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Sep 2015, 19:45

The Open University has twelve regional centres that are located throughout the United Kingdom.  After the closure of a regional office in East Grinstead, which served the South East of England, the university embarked on a review of its regional centres.  On Tuesday 15 September 2015, the university announced that a locations analysis project, as it is called, was to recommend the closure of seven out of the nine centres in England.

This blog post is, essentially, my own personal response to the recommendation.  One thing that I will say is that I do work in a regional centre: in the London office.  I should also say that I’m not a manager (in the sense of what happens in a regional office), but my perspective is informed by having seen a lot of the great work that happens in London.

The university review states that the closures are primarily motivated by a noble desire to enhance the student experience and the closures are not related to money.  As someone who is on the ground, I find it very difficult to see how students experience will not be affected.

What follows is a set of views about what the regional centres actually do.  These points are, of course, my own opinions.  What I could also do is write loads more about the concept of student support teams (SSTs), activities that relate to associate lecturer alignment with SSTs (and these also directly relate to the closure of regional centres), but I’m keen to keep this all pretty simple: I don’t want to slip into baffling OU jargon.

So, here goes.  Here are my points and observations.

The London office is a busy place

I’ve heard it said that the regional centres are underutilised. From the London perspective, this is just not true.  There is always stuff going on, and the vice chancellor would see it if he took the time to come down and have a chat with some of his staff who work there.

Granted, some of the desks for the faculty people are sometimes lightly used, and this is because they’re either travelling to and from Milton Keynes (the OU’s head office), or have got their head down at home writing module materials at home.  

But, if you look a little bit closer, they are there and they do come in, especially to work with their academic assistants in associate lecturer services to sort out a whole range of different issues, such as associate lecturer recruitment, interviews, appraisals, timetables, tutor-student allocation actions, emergency and illness cover for tutors…  There’s a whole long list of these things.

There are three floors in London.  On the ground floor: there are a bunch of meeting rooms.  These are often occupied by central academics from Milton Keynes who run meetings and projects.  On the day of the locations analysis announcement, there was actually a music conference that was running in the next room.  Plus, the rooms are heavily used as tutorial rooms.  The meeting rooms (on all levels) are so heavily used, you are encouraged to book very early.  Sometimes, there just isn’t the space.

On the first floor, we have the advisors and learner support people for the student support team.  You have people sorting out examination arrangements.  You have people sorting out disability issues.  You have people sorting out examinations for people who are held in secure units or prisons.  You have people offering careers advice.  You also have a number of faculty staff.

On the second floor, there are the associate lecturer support staff: these are the really important people (who should be celebrated and cherished) who actually do the job of putting students in groups.  There are also people who book venues and sort out timetables.  There are people who help to organise interviews (as mentioned earlier) and reassure students and tutors.  

Associate lecturer (AL) services are a really important aspect to the university for the simple reason that associate lecturers are fundamental to the university’s success.  The AL services people also play a valuable role in helping to support associate lecturer development activities, but that is something that I’ll come onto later.

There are two other things worth mentioning: there are two projects that are hosted in the London region: a literary magazine, and a music research project.  These seem to be forgotten about.

In essence, the Camden office is buzzing.  It always has been.  It serves the most populous part of the United Kingdom.  To consider its complete closure (which is what has been announced) is, in my view, madness.

Supporting disabled students

The Open University has a social mission: its slogan is that it is open to people, places, and ideas.  If it loses a substantial link with place, it will lose its link with people too.  One really important dimension is the importance of supporting disabled students.  Supporting disabled students is, of course, a legislative imperative.

Here’s an interesting fact.  The university has nineteen thousand students who have declared a disability, and this number is increasing (SeGA project).  A disability can mean anything from a temporary condition or illness (where a student can become temporarily disabled), a chronic condition (such as diabetes), a physical impairment or mental health issues.

And here’s an example.  On a number of occasions students have visited me at the London regional centre to have a chat (and I’m sure they drop in to chat to advisors and learner support people too!) In these instances, I’m able to offer reassurance and think about which tutor might be best able to support the needs of an individual student.  I would then be able to facilitate the development of a tutor-student relationship.

Would I be able to do that if a student couldn’t visit me?  No.  Does the suggested changes help to enhance the student experience?  No.  Would I be able to head over to the specialist disability advisor who works in the region for some advice about how to approach a particular student?  Again, the answer is no.   Would everything become a whole lot more difficult if I had to do everything by phone: yes.  Plus, some students might not wish to use the phone, or have a disability that prevents them from using the phone effectively.  This isn’t just an argument that I’ve just slotted in here: I used to be one of those people.

There are lots of different issues that link to the issue of students with disabilities, such as the importance of associate lecturer staff development and the accessibility of rooms.  Another really important role that the region performs is planning home exams for students who have disabilities.  The staff in the region work hard to match local invigilators with local students.  Regional staff also need to consider personalities: sometimes a student may be more comfortable with a known invigilator than a stranger.  Knowing this depends on local knowledge: knowing the students, knowing the invigilators, and knowing where everyone lives.

There is something else that the London office does: disability assessments.  If a student applies for the disabled student’s allowance, they will be invited to be a part of a disability assessment.  This is where a professional assessor helps a student to choose a set of assistive technologies and tools that can best suit the study needs.  If the London office closes, this facility will also have to close.  This will, without a doubt, affect students.  I’ll again emphasise a really important point: there is a legislative imperative that the university needs to adhere to.

A final thought on this section is that the project teams has been asked for a document called an equality analysis.  This is a document that is to describe what the university will do to mitigate against the impact that the changes will have to students who have disabilities.  Key points will be: how can associate lecturers run special sessions (more of this point later), and how can the university best guarantee the accessibility of rooms where venues can be hundreds of miles away from centres?   I’ve also heard it said that any closure of a regional centre will affect more women than it will men, due to the number of women who work in these centres. 

Offender learners and students in secure units

I’ll go back university to the mission: people, places and ideas.  A really important aspect of the university’s provision is the ability (in some situations) to offer distance education to people who are located in secure units or prisons.  The distinction between the two are important: secure units might be psychiatric hospitals, for instance.

I hold the liberal (and human) view that education is a right and we should strive to offer it to all.  From what I understand from colleagues within the university, the regions do a huge amount of work to help education in different kinds of institutions happen.  A point is that secure units, whatever they may be, have to be located somewhere.  Also, the relationships between an institution, their education officers and the university have been built up over a considerable period of time.  Plus, when people move on, new relationships need to be built, and the best way to do this, and to understand the challenges is to have opportunities to visit institutions and meet staff.  HMP Swaleside in Kent is a very long way from Milton Keynes or Nottingham.

I’ll make the point again: local knowledge about tutors, institutions, education officers and individual students are important.  This is knowledge that has been built up over considerable time.  Destroying it by dismantling the regional structure is a profound risk to the good work that the university does. 

I’m not directly involved with tutoring students who are held in secure units, but a really important aspect of my job is connecting people together.  One thing I do is keep a rough list of tutors who might be prepared to work with students who are located in different types of institutions.  Although I haven’t had many opportunities of tutoring these students, this is something that I would certainly do.  I would do it because it’s important.  Plus, I feel supported by the regional structure, and by colleagues who know the ins and outs of different institutions.

I’ve hinted at the issue of exams here again, so let’s tackle this issue head on (bearing in mind that I only know a little of what happens in this part of the region).

Exams

Exams has been mentioned earlier.  It is something that is so important, that it deserves its own heading.  In the university, you cannot meddle with exams, and for a very good reason: if you do, you mess around with academic integrity.  As mentioned earlier, the regions play a fundamental role in getting exams sorted out.

Will someone drive all the way from Manchester to check out an exam centre in Cornwall?  Will there be someone who will travel from Milton Keynes to Hastings to make sure that an exam centre is accessible and is appropriate according to academic guidelines?  How will the university go about organising and recruiting invigilators?  Will the university outsource invigilation to some other organisation?  (I admit to not knowing how this exam stuff happens: it just happens, and it seems to happen very well)  My point is the devil is in the detail, and the university has said that the detail was out of scope.

Here’s an interesting example of how the London regional centre (and presumably other regional centres) are used.  At a number of different points of the year the London region hosts exams (again, expect that other regional centres do this too).  Why? I guess there a couple of reasons: but two reasons are to cater for people who have additional requirements (disabilities), or people who have been unable to take an exam in another location, perhaps due to licence restrictions, having been released from a prison.  A regional centre is a really good place to run these exams, since there is support, it’s a controlled environment, and the university can be confident that the examinations are well run.  As every academic (and administrator) worth their salt knows: you don’t mess with exams.

Here’s something else that I’ve learnt.  I’ve heard that following the closure of the South East Region in East Grinstead, the London region has had to take control over a huge amount of exams for a part of the country that I’ve mentioned has a pretty big population.  In terms of administration, this has been a big challenge, but the staff have done the best job they can.

As suggested earlier, the regions also organise and run home exams, where students have to be matched with invigilators.  In fact, when we’re talking about invigilators, we’re not talking about, say, sixty or so.  We’re talking about six hundred invigilation contracts, and to set up each contract requires an experienced administrator to complete a whole bunch of different forms. Also, these really important exam arrangements are managed by a very small group of people in every region.  I’ve heard it say that you need to go through at least two administration cycles (or, two years), to get a handle on what needs to be done.

The point to this section is that the regions play a fundamental role in the management of exams for all students.  These also include students who have disabilities, students who have been in institutions, vulnerable adults, and students who have had to contend with illness.

Associate lecturer recruitment, induction and appraisal

I’ve already mentioned that associate lecturers are really important to the university’s success. There are a couple of elephants in the room, and one of these are: in a world where everything is virtual, how do you go about interviewing associate lecturers?  

I do quite a lot of interviewing, and nothing beats seeing the whites of their eyes: if an AL comes across as being friendly, personable and knowledgeable, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be the same with our students.  Plus, how do we check their degree certificates and passports?  Due to government worries about immigration, we’ve got to scrutinise AL documents really carefully – and I can’t emphasise how important this is.

I’ve heard it said that perhaps the post office or solicitors could authenticate documents on our behalf, but I think that is a nonsense solution.  Our associate lecturer services people see a lot of degree certificates and can spot a fake a mile off.  Do we expect some operative in a post office to see fakes?  I don’t think so.

My point is: we need physical space to interview people, and we need people to check documents.  If someone is considered to be appointable, will they have to send off their documents to one of the two remaining regions?  Will there be a new role where someone has the job of eyeballing passports and degree certificates all day?  I would personally feel very uncomfortable sending my passports and certificates in the post.  Invariably the worst will happen: things will get lost.  In fact, I have personally not accepted a consultancy contract for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be separated from my passport, and I expect many tutors will feel the same.

Another point is the importance of induction of new associate lecturers.  It takes time to get up to speed and nothing beats a face to face chat. The last induction sessions I have personally run have taken place in the London centre, and I’m sure they take place across the country. Inductions are also an opportunity for a staff tutor (their line manager) to get to know their associate lecturer: it’s an opportunity to create the important ‘social glue’ that makes everything work.  It’s our opportunity to learn more about their skills, motivations and experiences, and when we do this, we’re able to help more.  An induction session cannot take place over the phone or on-line.  If you did this, personal line management relationships would be significantly impoverished.

A final point in this section is about appraisals, or CDSAs.  Now, it is true that most of my appraisals take place over the phone, but I understand it that tutors can also request to have a face to face appraisal.  In fact, if an associate lecturer has a disability, there is no reason why this can’t be requested as a reasonable adjustment.  I remember that two of the most useful appraisals I have conducted have been face to face.  It’s easy to say, ‘we can all go virtual’, but if this happens, we will lose those important moments of human connection which makes doing the job so important.  A corollary of this is that many of us choose to teach or tutor precisely because there is such a human aspect to our role.

Associate lecturer development

One of my roles is to help on a committee that run these associate lecturer development events.  These are great opportunities to get tutors together in the same place to share war stories and teaching practice.  It’s also a great opportunity to reconnect with our tutors, for tutors to reconnect with each other, and to share updates about the university.

To date, all the associate lecturer development conferences that I have been to have been connected to individual regions, and this remains to this day.  If the regional structures go (as invariably they will), I fear for the continuing level of staff development that we can offer our tutors.  I learnt to teach through the AL development conferences; I learnt how to run face to face tutorials, and how to provide effective correspondence tuition.  I have also learnt through stories that other tutors have shared with me.  Face to face associate lecturer development is of fundamental importance.

Like so many of these comments, my point here is simple: removing all but two English regional centres runs the risk of significantly impoverishing the training and development opportunities that we offer our essential associate lecturers.  In turn, this will invariably have an effect on the quality of teaching that is offered by our tutors.

I can anticipate a counter argument along the lines of: ‘we have no plans to stop AL development’, but this answer just isn’t good enough.  There has been no comment about any alternatives about how to arrange or plan for an alternative.  A decision that is not based on any consideration of implementation issues is a decision that is foolish.

Implementation of the group tuition policy (GTP)

The group tuition policy is a plan to enable students to have access to a wider range of learning events.  These might be on-line events or off-line events.  I’m one of the fans of the policy.  In fact, in the London region we’ve been running a version of it for some of the high population computing modules. 

Planning for the GTP is especially important, since staff tutors (along with module teams) need to figure out a programme of events that will be delivered throughout the presentation of a module.  Some tutors might have specialisms in aspects of a module; the GTP allows tutors to play to their strengths, which can (in theory) help with student learning and student experience.

There is one thing that we need to do to plan effectively: and that is to have discussions; to learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and our personal timetables and abilities.  In the current world, we can all have meetings in the regional centre, but I would have no idea what would happen in the new world.  Again, a huge amount of detail is lacking, and this isn’t good enough.

Tutorial venue booking and management

I don’t know as much about this subject as some of the others (since it’s not my role), but I’m willing to take a punt on the importance of place when it comes to booking tutorial venues.  Plus, I’ve also heard the VC talking about the face to face tutorial provision is going to remain important, which is something that I’m very relieved about.

I’m going to go on a slight diversion: I’m a great believer in face to face tutorials for a number of different reasons.  I’ve heard people saying that the attendance can be quite low for some sessions, and I’ve witnessed this first hand.  Some tutorials can have very few students, but others (if they are planned properly), can have very good numbers.  Even before the planning of something called the Group Tuition Policy, the London region have been running tuition events that have attracted good amounts of students (of course, each region is different: in terms of geography, London is very different to, say, Wales or Scotland). 

Here’s a point that I would like to make (and I’m making it to pre-empt any potential management decision to say ‘we can do everything on line’).  Face to face tutorials are important for all students, whether they come along or not.  When a tutor delivers a tutorial, they have to know their stuff.  Also, those students who attend tutorials are likely to be highly motivated, which means that they are likely to ask difficult questions.  Face to face is important because it forces tutors to be at the top of their game.

So, on to the point of the venues.  Successful events are created through successful relationships.  In London, we know the chap who runs the London School of Economics Centre. He’s a really nice guy, and will do whatever we can to help, and he is really responsive to all the requests that come his way.  Can we build same relationships between the venue manager and those mysterious ‘venue booking people’ who may end up working in Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham?  I can’t answer this question.  Plus, it will fundamentally hinder our ability to respond to one off requests to cater for people who have additional requirements.  As mentioned above, this isn’t just a nice to have: it’s a legislative imperative.

As suggested earlier, the devil is in the detail, and we haven’t see any detail.

Special tutorial sessions

Sometimes, students need a bit of extra help.  What tutors can do sometimes is have a chat with a student over the phone, offering something that is known as a ‘special session’.  Sometimes, this just isn’t enough, especially if a student is suffering from anxiety or has a disability, for instance.  In London, tutors can contact their staff tutor and asked to book a meeting room to hold a one to one tutorial session.  The London centre is, of course, a safe space for both students and tutors alike: there are always staff milling around, and the area may well be familiar to both students and tutors alike.

Will we be able to have the same kind of flexibility to support students if the regional centres close?  I suggest not.  It could be the case that we might be able to rent temporary office space somewhere to run special sessions, but can we guarantee that they are safe, or guarantee that they are accessible?  This necessitates a whole new set of administrative procedures, protocols and processes: venues would be need to be scrutinised, and venues may well change – and it may not be possible to guarantee both privacy and security in office space that is rented by the hour.

I’ll come back to my earlier point: the devil is in the detail.  All I can see is problems and issues. 

Degree ceremonies

Twice a year I help out at the London graduation ceremony, which takes place at the Barbican centre.  These are always great events, and it’s a pleasure to be there.  London regional staff always play an essential and important role in these events. Before the day, staff accept registrations and answer questions that are asked by students.  On the day, regional staff man the registration desks and work closely with qualifications and ceremonies team to make sure that everything run smoothly.

If the regions were to close, there would be an obvious knock on effect: colleagues at Milton Keynes would have to take up a lot of the slack.  They would have to find people to man the registration desks, find graduate presenters, and hall ushers, and have extra people who help to make the day what it is.  

The point here is simple: a lot of work would have to be moved and transferred, and there is no indication about how this would be done.  There has only been a nebulous statement that everything has to be done within a year. 

Outreach and widening participation

During a faculty committee meeting, I spoke up and said: ‘we are a national university, we’re not just a university that is based in Milton Keynes’ (which, of course, connects back to the ‘places’ bit of the university mission).  My point is that reducing our national coverage would also reduce our reach.

Widening Participation is something that I have to confess that I don’t know too much about, but it is something I personally believe is really important.  I don’t come from a well off background, and I’m thankful of the opportunities that have come my way.

I have a colleague in the London regional centre who runs these events for students who are interested in study.  She recruits experienced tutors to go and have a chat to potential students about what it means to become an Open University student.  She has press ganged me into participating into these events too!  I have even ended up tutoring one of the students that I have spoken to.

The regions are brilliant bases for co-ordinating outreach activities into the local community.  A point that I would like to raise on this issue is that we could be using our regional centres a whole lot better when it comes to this subject.  In the last four years I’ve been subjected to perpetual change in my role.  I also feel that outreach activities (which should be a much more important aspect in the OU’s current work activities) are not valued as much as they could be.  I would personally like to do more of this kind of work, and to do this, my first port of call would, of course, be my colleagues in the regional centre.

With fear of sounding like a broken record: dismantling the regional structure in its entirety would damage our collective ability to do outreach work that is fundamental to the university’s mission.

Walk-in enquiries and regional reputation

I mentioned earlier that the London regional centre is busy.  It’s not just busy with staff, it’s also busy with students too.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see a student in the reception area, using a telephone to speak with someone in Milton Keynes.  Sometimes, regional colleagues come down stairs to chat with students, to offer them impromptu advice.  

This is something that I’ve done too: I’ve spoken about various computing modules, and I’ve taken them to the regional library to show them the module materials.  (I understand that other regions have a library too).   A counter argument is, of course: ‘oh, but there are not very many people who come in to the offices’.  This is a fair point, but a response to that is: ‘should we really aspire to go with the lowest common denominator?’

Regional centres are advertisements in their own right: they mark the presence of the institution, but these are locations that also have functions that can’t be relocated with lots of extensive thought and planning.  They have taken decades to put together, and we won’t know for certain about the impact of their loss until they are gone.

Institutional risk

London is now the home of the remnants of the East Grinstead office.  I’ve heard it said that there have been very few people who have transferred from one office to the other.  One colleague has told me that over half of the academic staff have left, and ninety percent of the administrative support staff have gone.  Decades of experience has, quite literally, walked out of the door, and it’s impossible to put a price on the loss of this expertise.

As yet, we are not yet fully aware of the impacts on the student experience that this closure has had because of the timing of the recommendations.  It is also arguable that it could take a couple of years of the true impacts of the closure to be felt. 

From my own perspective, I know that my regional colleagues are under extreme pressure due to the constant changes they have had to work through.  If people are put under pressure, mistakes will inevitably happen, and everyone will make sure that everything is put right to the best of our abilities to ensure that students are not affected.

Here’s another personal reflection: I’m a pretty young guy.  I can deal with stuff.  I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue.  I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.  But what keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m doing a good and important job. 

I’m really worried that people are going to break; that people are going to get sick, and that people will be confused by complex IT systems.  Plus, all the timescales to make all the changes are extraordinarily extreme. 

I’m no management consultant, but from my position ‘in the trenches’, I’m shaking my head partly out of desperation, but also out of fear for the forthcoming administrative apocalypse if the current recommendations are ever implemented.

Here’s my most important reflection, and one that is directly related to the student experience: I can see that this proposed reconfiguration is going to push people to their limits; people will leave; there will be endless mistakes; there will be confusion, and the net effect is that the students will be substantially affected. 

Some fundamental concerns

I’ve read somewhere that the locations analysis project has seen no alternative visions for the regions.  I do know that there has been a period of formal consultation about the project, but I’ll like to give a personal opinion about this.

For me, the locations analysis has been just one of very many initiatives that have been thrown my way.  By and large, I’m doing what I can to keep up.  I’ll put it like this: I have been too busy with day to day admin and issues to have a moment to consider how things are run differently, and perhaps other people have the same views.

Have I been invited to a workshop to consider the different ways in which the university might imagine a regional structure that would serve the university in, say 2020?  No.  Would I go if there was one?  Yes.

There is one main concern that I’ve mentioned before that I do find astonishing.  It is this: how can a recommendation be suggested without any thought about how it could be achieved?

In conclusion

Although all of these thoughts, opinions and comments relate to my own experience of a staff tutor in the London region, there may well be lots in common with many of the other regions: Oxford, Cambridge, Gateshead, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds.  (Not to mention also Nottingham and Manchester regions, which would be irrevocably changed if these proposals do go ahead).

Here’s an important concluding message: I personally challenge senior management to come up with some more sensible thinking.  I also urge management to dispense with the current plan.  In my opinion, the current proposals are an uncomfortable combination of folly and vandalism.  Plus, they don't seem to take into account many of the essential functions that take place in the regional centres.

We’re not just talking about what is good for the university, we’re talking about bigger issues: we’re talking about reducing the extent to which we collectively fight and work for social justice.  The current recommendation suggests that we’re talking about reducing the mission of the university, which has always been about open to people, places and ideas.  Let’s not have an idea that attacks places in such an outrageous way.  This idea, of course, will directly affect people. And the people I’m talking about are, of course, our students.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to two colleagues who took the time to quickly proof read this blog post during what is the busiest and most intense time of the year – I really appreciate it!  Also, any remaining grammatical mistakes, operational misunderstandings or tryping mistakes are entirely my own.

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Christopher Douce

Using the cloud to understand the user experience

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In mid-July I went to an event at University College London that was all about interaction design and the user experience.This blog post is a quick summary of some of the key points that I took away from the event.

The theme for the evening was all about how to do remote user testing.User testing is a subject that is covered in the Open University M364 Fundamentals of Interaction design module. Interestingly, the evening also had connection with another module that I have a connection with: TM352 Web Mobile and Cloud.There were three talks during the evening.For the purposes of this blog, I'm just going to say something about two of them.

Remote user testing

The first talk of the evening was by a representative from a company called WhatUsersDo (company website).Here's a quick summary of the business: if you've got an interactive product and you need to test it with real users, you can contact this company who have a bank of on-line testers.These testers can then be videos and recorded using your products or interfaces.When the testing has been completed, analysts can review the data and send it back to you in a neat report.

In essence, you can get lots of qualitative data relatively easily.You also don't have go through the challenge and drama of recruiting participants and organising lab sessions.Lab sessions, it is argued, are expensive. Instead, remote testers can their laptops (and smart devices) which have embedded video cameras and microphones.

The thing is: how does a recording find its way from a research participant to a user experience analyst?The answer is simple: the cloud helps them do it.Apparently the WhatUsersDo infrastructure is undergoing continual change (which isn't too surprising, given the pace of change in computing).Apparently, the business uses Amazon EC2, or Elastic Compute Cloud (I think that's what it's an abbreviation for!)Other bits of interesting technology include the use of Angular.JS (Wikipedia) and MongoDB (Wikipedia).

SessionCam

SessionCam (company website) also helps users to do user testing, but adopts a somewhat different approach to WhatUsersDo.Rather than to ask users to talk through their use of a website (for instance), SessionCam actually records where the users look when the move throughout a website.

I was very curious about how this worked.The answers seemed to be pretty simple: through the use of 'magic tags' that were embedded in a web page.It also works through the magic of cookies.I also had another question, which was: if the system is tracking user 'movements', then where does all this data go to?The answer was also pretty simple: to the cloud.Like WhatUsersDo, SessionCam also makes use of Amazon cloud storage.

A really interesting aspect to all this, is that the company was able to gather and store information about thousands of user interactions.The company could then create what was known as 'heat maps'.These were rough pictures of where users go to on a website.

Reflections

This event has taught me two things: the first is the interesting ways that cloud technology can be used to create a niche business or service.Secondly: the unassailable fact that I need to always keep up with changes in software technology.

I've seen Angular mentioned on an increasing number of job adverts.A quick skim read about it mentions some bits of tech that I have used at various times: HTML, the DOM, Javascript and JSON - but I haven't used Angular in anger.In fact, I know hardly anything about it.The same applies to MongoDB: I know what it is, and I know what it does, but I have never found the time to mess about with it.This is something that I really ought to do!(And the same applies with the use of Python, and this might well become a subject of another blog post).

In some respects, these companies represent two mini case studies about the use of cloud technologies.A couple of months back, I went to a talk about a company that shared financial data 'through the cloud'.There are loads of other examples out there.

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Christopher Douce

The perfect OU Live session

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 1 Sep 2015, 11:25

This is a quick summary of a meeting that occurred on Saturday 27 June 2015 at the university's London regional centre.  The aim of the meeting (or session) was to think about a thought experiment, namely, 'what should the perfect OU Live session look like?'

If you've stumbled across this post via a search engine, then I should (perhaps) say something about what OU Live is: it's a tool that tutors can use to deliver on-line tutorials to their students.  Think of it a bit like Skype with a whiteboard and a bunch of other useful controls (such as a 'happy face' button).

This session was attended by around twelve experienced associate lecturers, all of whom had used OU Live quite extensively with their students. 

This, in essence, is what they said a perfect Computing/ICT session might look like.  (One point to bear in mind is that other disciplines might run slightly different sessions - but more about this later!)

Setting the scene

Firstly, the moment we click on our OU Live room, OU Live should open in an instant.  There should be no delay!  We don't have to download anything extra (or enter any really annoying administrative passwords).  The Java software, which we need to run to use OU Live, should always work perfectly.  We should never have to upgrade it!

With the perfect OU Live session, not only will we have a perfect internet connection (which will never go down), our students will have a perfect internet connection too!  Our connection will be really fast (with little or no latency), and none of our students will be connecting up to our session whilst travelling by train.  An important point is: there will be no delays. 

We should also assume that all students have their own microphones and headsets, all of which are perfect.  This means that there is absolutely no feedback.  Of course, our own audio setup works perfectly, and there are no other software products battling to use our computer's audio channel.

The perfect time, length and group

We decided that the perfect time for the perfect OU Live session would be towards the middle of a module presentation (or, roughly half way through).  This means that, of course, everyone is making pretty good progress, and all students are now familiar with the OU Live interface.  Also, everyone has, what I call, good 'mic hygiene'. This means that students don't leave the microphone switched on (so other students can't speak!)

One important thing to say about our 'perfect group' is that they're all willing to interact; they're all engaged.  No one has kids in the background vying for attention, and there are no cats jumping on keyboards.

A 'perfect size' for an OU Live group would be considered to be around 10-12 students.  Since there would be no technology problems, there won't be any drop outs.  Also, everyone arrives exactly on time.  There will be no one arriving half way through the session asking, 'what have I missed?', or 'could you just go over that bit?'

Ideally, all the students who turn up would belong to our own tutor group.  This way, we know who they are and what their learning needs might be.

Our view was that our perfect session should last anything between 60 and 90 minutes.

(One thing that we didn't talk about was the best time to hold the perfect tutorial)

The perfect preparation

Preparation can be considered from two different perspectives: the tutor's side, and the student's side.  A tutor might prepare by, perhaps, doing a practice run through.  A tutor could also post a copy of a draft agenda on a tutor group forum.

Of course, in a perfect situation, all students would read the OU Live session agenda, and take the time to prepare for the session, which might mean having read sections of module materials, and having some questions to ask the tutor at the OU Live session.

Another thing that we could do to help with our preparation is to ask all our students in advance what topics they would like you to cover.  Since every student reads every message you post on the forum, you're able to design a session that is just for them.

The perfect OU Live tutorial structure

Since we're running 'the perfect session' in the middle of a module presentation, we can dispense with the idea of running any icebreakers: all the students should know each other already.

In our perfect session we would present a short introduction which relates to a set of really clear learning objectives.  This would be followed with a series of short interactive activities (say, around three).  These activities, of course, would be entirely appropriate for OU Live.

Since we (of course) would have planned out everything (and have a backup plan!) we would know how long each activity should take (also, in a perfect world, we would have run the session before, so we know what to expect!)

Towards the end of our tutorial, we would ask all students if they had any questions about what has happened.  We would then do a quick recap of what has happened, and remind everyone about the next TMA cut-off date.  We would also say something about what is going to happen in the next OU Live session (or module activity).

The perfect use of OU Live features

During our session, we chatted about the perfect use of various OU Live features.  One thing we discussed was the importance of polling, i.e. asking our students to respond during a session; students clicking on the 'tick' or the 'happy face' icon.   One suggestion (which was apparently given as a part of Blackboard training, the company that has created OU Live) is to poll students every 20-30 seconds.  Polling will allow you to keep the students engaged; it enables you to check whether everybody understands all the points that you are making (which is important since there's an obvious lack of visual cues).

Even though all students will have perfectly working microphones (with no crackle, delay or feedback), the text chat channel is still considered to be useful.  Students can ask for clarifications.  It can also be used to share links and other resources.  (Such as links to the OU study guides).

During our activities, we might want to use breakout rooms.  Of course, all our breakout rooms will work perfectly!  (There won't for example, be a situation where one student has a microphone and another hasn't)  We would be able to set a timer and move between different rooms, checking on what is happening in each of the sessions.

One of the things that we can't do in breakout rooms is to make a recording.  A related question is: 'should we record our perfect OU Live sessions?'  Different tutors have different opinions about this.  On one hand, a recording of an OU Live session becomes a useful (perfect) resource (that could be potentially referred back to, perhaps during the revision period).  Alternatively, if we record a session, students might argue that they don't need to turn up.  Also, if students know they're being recorded, they would be reluctant to speak.  (This is clearly an issue that is going to be debated for quite some time; there are clear arguments either way).

All tutors have used the application sharing feature of OU Live to show students how to use features of the programming tools that they need to use.  In the case of TU100, this is the Sense environment.  In the case of TM129, this would be RobotLab.  Sharing an application can allow the tutor to ask students some questions to determine whether they understand certain concepts.  It can also be used to demonstrate what happens when you run some code, and also how to begin to use different debugging strategies.  You might also give control of the application to students, so they can demonstrate their skills.

Of course, in a perfect world, the application sharing feature is really responsive!  (One comment was that, in the real world, we might use quite a small window, since this uses less bandwidth)

After the perfect session

At the end of the session, you would post a copy of the slides to your tutor group forum, and share any other resources.  A tutor might also post a number of follow up questions or activities, and the date and time of the next session.

Closing thoughts and acknowledgements

Before running this meeting I had never explicitly asked myself the question of 'what does a perfect OU Live session look like?'  Instead, I had worked on instinct: trying something out, and then reflect on whether it seemed to work or not. 

I found it really useful to hear everyone's opinions and views about what makes a good session.

During our meeting, I remember there was a conversation about OU Live examples.  I've managed to dig out the resource I was once told about.  It's called:  Teaching with online rooms (OU VLE). The page contains a set of different OU Live examples that have been created by tutors who are working in different disciplines. For those who teach programming and computing modules, the 'writing and running simple code' is a really interesting link.  The other resources about level 1 and academic referencing, and study skills are useful too.

I would like to personally hank all the tutors who attended this session for their contributions: everyone who was at the London region on the afternoon of Saturday 30 June contributed to discussions and ideas that led to the writing of this quick blog.  Thank you all!

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Christopher Douce

Scholarship, CALRG and SST

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Going to three events in two days, between 15 and 16 June, was pretty intense but also pretty good fun.  The first event was all about the scholarship of teaching and learning.  A different way of understanding this is: how to go about figuring out how to best do teaching and learning?  It's important to do research into this area not because 'learning' has changed, but the ways in we learn (and the technologies we use) continually changes and evolves: we want to know that we're doing the right thing.

The second event had a similar theme.  It was the Computers And Learning Research Group (or CALRG, for short) conference.  CALRG is a long-running research group in the university's Institute of Educational Technology.

The final event was at the Birmingham regional office, where the MCT learner support staff are based.  During this event, I learnt about a range of different things - but more about this later.  Actually, there was a forth event, an associate lecturer staff development conference, which was organised by the Oxford regional centre (but there isn't the time to write about this!)

Scholarship event

Linda Price opened the event by presenting a definition of scholarship: it is a term that describes research and research action.  Scholarship regarding teaching and learning is activity that uses information relevant to our learning and teaching to inform and enhance our practice.  She also went on to emphasise the importance of evidence.  Linda told us that scholarship was a strategic priority to the university.  She spoke of an internal university project called SHARE, which is intended to help regional staff with the research activities.  An interesting and thought provoking line that Linda gave us was: 'doctors save lives, but we can change them'.

The next part of the event was a series of twelve five minute 'lightening talks' about different research project (I think there were around twelve!)  First up was my colleague Ann from Manchester who talked about 'perceptions, expectations and experience of group tuition'.  Her project was to explore different perceptions and opinions about tutorials.  This research then has the potential to inform a new Group Tuition Policy.   

Next up was a talk that had the title 'What drives scholarship?' I seem to recall that the research was looking at the use of language in assignments, tutor guidance and feedback.  A really important subject is, of course, retention.  I also remember references to Y031 Arts and Languages, Y032 People Work and Society, and Y033 Science Technology and Maths access modules (which help to prepare students for undergraduate level study).

This was followed by: 'A levels based approach to referencing and information management'.  Apparently, some students may drop out, or become demotivated due to the challenge of appropriate referencing.  The national student survey apparently said that different students are given different advice.  The following talk was all about investigating engagement with on-line library services.

An interesting question, from a colleague in the business school was: 'why do we keep failing our Japanese students?'  One of the reasons could be attributed to differences between HE in the UK and Japan.  Understanding and being aware of cultural differences can allow us to gain an understanding of how to support different groups.

Rob Parsons, an associate lecturer colleague from the South East region spoke about peer assessment.  He argued that the student-tutor relationship can be improved.  Themes that Rob's short talk addressed included active learning, learning communities and engagement and retention.

The university is, of course, a big consumer of technology, and there is a perpetual need to figure out how to use new technologies and whether a technology is appropriate for students.  One talk that explicitly explored this issue had the title: Going Live with Google hangouts.

It was then my turn.  I talked about a project that was about the gathering of tutor experiences of tutoring on a second level computing module, TT284 Web Technologies (I horrified to discover that, in front of over sixty people, all of my PowerPoint animations were messed up!)

The talk that went after mine had the title: 'how to get students to do your iCMA and why that is good' (An iCMA is an interactive computer marked assignment).  This was followed by 'investigating one to one tuition: initial findings'.  This project was from the faculty of health and social care.  The research involved interviewing students and carrying out focus groups with associate lecturers.

Sometimes low technology solutions and approaches can be really useful.  An interesting talk was 'an evaluation of the effectiveness of student buddies', which I think focussed on languages and business modules, specifically L185 English for academic purposes and LB160 Professional communication skills for business studies.  The presentation told us about student buddy training through OU Live and a shared 'student buddy forum' on L192 Bon départ: beginners' French.  This reminds me that some of the materials for these modules are available for free through the Open Learn website.

The final 'lightening' presentation of the morning had a slightly different flavour; it was entitled, 'smarter than the average ebook'.  It was given by a colleague from Learning and Teaching Solutions, part of the university that provides some of the technical infrastructure.  We were taken on a journey through different digital formats, ranging from PDFs, epub (Wikipedia) and epub2 files, and then onto OU anywhere.  Some experiments have been performed with ePub3.  These are becoming 'websites wrapped as an off-line experience'.

An interesting point was that 'students are frustrated about being sent away from the text'.  This is a comment that resonates strongly with me.  I found it difficult to study 'off line' even though I wanted to: I printed off lots of on-line materials, but I found myself being directed to various websites and on-line resources.  This is also a comment that arose during my own TT284 research.

One comment I noted was: 'ebook readers are tricky things'.  Different readers do different things.  To close this presentation, we were shown a demonstration entitled 'how to build a methane molecule'.

After a lunch, it was time for the keynote speech.  The keynote was given by our PVC in learning and teaching, Belinda Tynan.  It began with a question: what does scholarship look like across the university.  There are, apparently 15 groups that 'play in the space' that is called scholarship, and that's just the research groups that belong to faculties (not to mention the research that takes place in the library, student services and other departments).  An important question is: 'how is the scholarship impacting the university, and how is it being focussed and directed?'

Moved on to talking about the different methods that can be used in education research. A related question is: how do we learn from each other, how do we share with each other, and how do we cross boundaries and disciplines?  Another really important question, from an institutional perspective is whether we are getting value for the effort that we institutionally put into scholarship.  It was a thought provoking keynote and it really set the scene for the afternoon session (but this was a session I had to duck out of because I had another commitment: to attend one of those fifteen scholarship groups that were mentioned about).

CALRG event

The CALRG conference is a three day conference, which means that I've missed loads of talks.  In case you're interested, the organisers have published a conference programme (CALRG website).

The first talk I attended was entitled: Building understanding of open education: an overview of OER on teaching and learning.  OER is an abbreviation for open educational resources.  The institute of educational technology hosts a research group that is known as an OER hub (website).

The second talk was all about mobility technology and had the title: Conducting a field trial in Milton Keynes: Lessons from the MApp.  I originally thought that MApp was some kind of mapping device, but it seemed to be something rather different.  It seemed to be about helping different people from different cultural backgrounds (or languages) to connect to each other.  I have to confess to being a bit lost at the start of the talk, but then I discovered that the research was using some really interesting methods to gather up some qualitative research.  (This reminded me about a 'diary study project' that I've been mulling over for quite some time, but I haven't managed to get around to doing anything about it yet!)

The third talk was a longer version of the same 'lightening' talk that I gave earlier in the day.  Talking at CALRG allowed me to talk a bit more about the methodology, and some really tentative findings since the analysis is still on-going!  (This, I think, is one the challenges of qualitative research: when do you stop!  One answer is: when you see the similar findings and themes emerging time and time again).

The next talk had the title: Improving language learning and transition into second language learning, through the language learning support dimensions (LLSD).  This talk used an instrument (also known as a survey) to help learners understand more about how they carry out language learning.  Since this wasn't my subject, I struggled to connect with this research, but I appreciated the idea of using a self-directed too to help learners to reflect on how they approach a problem.

The final talk of the CALRG session was 'diverse approaches to using online 'studio' based learning in Open University modules'.  In some respects, the 'studio' can be considered to be an in-house version of the photo sharing website Flickr.  I seem to have a memory that it was used with a digital photography module, to allow students to share examples of their work.  It was interesting to hear that this module was going to be re-launched as a non-credit bearing module (which will have the module code TG189).  Modules such as U101 use a version of this tool called Open Studio.  I learnt that it has now found its way into a total of thirteen different modules, and the Open Studio tool now goes by different names and has a range of different uses. There is also a blog about OpenStudio that is hosted by the university.

The talk led onto an interesting discussion about accessibility.  Whilst an on-line environment might itself be technically accessible, the materials that are transferred to an environment might be fundamentally inaccessible.  One thought about how to remedy this is to try to facilitate collaborations between students.

SST event

The final event I'll mention was held in Birmingham, which is the home of the Computing and IT student support team.  The SST comprises of associate lecturers, learner support staff, advisors and academics.  The purpose of the meeting was to allow the learner support people to meet academic colleagues (and visa-versa) to learn about how we can work more closely with teach other.

There were three rough parts of the day.  The first enabled staff tutors (the academic staff) to learn more about what was going on from the learner support perspective.  The second was a short talk about 'the day in the life' of a staff tutor.  The final section was an update from the faculty Media Fellow.

During this final session I learnt about a project called JIFL, also known as Journeys from Informal to Formal Learning (which remains a bit of a mystery).  There are also a number of FutureLearn MOOCs (Massively Open On-line Courses) that are either currently being delivered, or are in the process of being developed.  These have the titles: 'Introduction of Cybersecurity' and 'Programming one line at a time', which uses the Python programming language (which is used in M269 Algorithms Data Structures and Computability).  Other MOOCs will include one about smart cities and another about renewable energy.

In other news, there is going to be an update to the OpenLearn site, where potential students can gain access to samples of OU materials.  There is also going to be a new programming module, which is intended to help students transition from the first level modules, such as TU100 My Digital Life and TM129 Technologies in practice, to the second level modules, such as M250 Object-oriented Java programming and M269.  This transition module will draw upon materials from an earlier module, M150 Data Computing and Information, and have a focus on problem solving.

In terms of forthcoming media productions, there was a lot of exciting news: there is going to be a programme about Algorithms (and how they relate to our lives), a programme about the life of Ada Lovelace (which contains a bit about gambling), and a documentary called Game Changer, which is about the developers of the Playstation game, Grand Theft Auto.

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Christopher Douce

Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 11:56

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about the 2015 Open University Disability conference. 

Keynote: the disability delusion

The first keynote of the day was by Tom McAlpine OBE who is a chair of a charity called Moodswings (charity website). Tom’s talk began by taking us into the history of the current disability legislation, highlighting that there has been (and continues to be) a stark difference between attention given to physical and mental health disabilities. 

He presented the audience with an interesting yet important question which was: ‘who is disabled?’  This question was linked to two philosophies which are connected with the social model of disability; the view that ‘either everyone is disabled, or nobody is disabled’.  Another interesting point was about the link between welfare and disability, and extent to which ‘austerity’ is affecting the lives of people who have disabilities: ‘it’s going to be worse than everyone imagined’.  The point was made that there should be a ‘proper use of resources’.  Individuals, it was argued, should only take as little from the state as they need. 

During Tom’s talk, I made the following note: ‘if we’re going to be fair, we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is disabled’.   I don’t think this is what he said word for word, but instead, it might be more of my impression of the point that he was trying to get across.  It is a view that I, fundamentally, take issue with.  It is a view that equates disability with the consumption of resources, and I think that the whole subject is a whole lot more complex.  You can have a disability (or an impairment of some kind), and get on with living your day to day life, and may have no recourse to need additional resources.  All you might need to get by is a bit of respect and understanding from others who are around you.

Tom’s talk was pretty provocative, and led to quite a bit of debate amongst colleagues who I spoke to.  This, I felt, was a sign that the keynote had done its job (irrespective of whether or not I personally agreed with some of the views that were expressed).

Workshop: Student mental health – whose responsibility?

The first workshop I signed up for on the second day was also by Tom.  Tom opened by stating that mental health issues may manifest themselves during study, due to change of circumstances or due to things that happen during life. He also mentioned that it is important to consider the difference between pre-existing mental health issues, and that sometimes the pressures of studying may make some students (who may be predisposed to illness) unwell.

Another point I remember was the importance of appropriate boundary setting.  This is linked to the point that there are limits to what the university can do: it can only provide help and guidance regarding study and academic issues.

During the talk I made the note: ‘wellness is a continuum’.  This was a theme that was highlighted during the London region diversity day that was specifically about mental health issues.  This part of Tom’s workshop offered a reminder that everyone can move between and onto different parts of a mental health continuum.

During the workshop, Tom also offered some controversial opinions about certain illnesses and also the roles of some tutors.  It was clear that he had particularly strong opinions, and my own opinions (which were also pretty strong) were somewhat different.  Education can be difficult whilst at the same time being transformative.  My own view is that a positive relationship between a student and a tutor is important (if not essential) to facilitate the exploring of different perspectives and views that can lead to a transformation.  I doubt very much that Tom would disagree with this view.  Our difference of opinion relates to judgement as to whether a tutor is doing something wrong if a student feels compelled to contact a tutor for support for unexpected issues.  My role is then to support that tutor, and to do my best to work with other colleagues to communicate boundaries.

In some respects Tom’s session was more of a chat than a workshop.  It was different to what I had expected, but is no better for it; there were many colleagues who were very free to express their opinions about a range of different issues.

During the session, we were reminded of a useful resources, a OU published booklet that is entitled: Studying and staying mentally healthy (OU website).  I heard that this resource is going to be made available to all students, not just students who may have disclosed a mental health issues.

Workshop: Universal design for learning – built in accessibility

The final workshop of the conference was facilitated by Heather Mole, who I managed to have a good chat with during the conference.  Heather is currently working on a really interesting PhD, which she might have mentioned during her workshop.  She has been looking into the privilege of sign-language interpreters, since they cross the boundaries of two different cultures: the Deaf culture, and our hearing culture.  This made me reflect about the connections between disability studies, other subjects, and other civil rights areas.

Heather began by playing an excerpt from a short film by Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor called An Examined Life  (YouTube)  As the film played, I made notes of the terms ‘normalising standards of our movements’, ‘disability as a political issue’ and ‘talking of language’.

I then remember some discussions about the different models of disability: the social model and the medical model.  Heather also mentioned the work of Tom Shakespeare, who is both an activist and a scholar.  Another philosophical model that was mentioned was the interactional model, which is an acknowledgement that an actual impairment is important.  I understand this model to be a combination of the social and medical models.  As Heather was speaking, I realised that I needed to do some reading!

I made an interesting note that accessibility can be thought of in two different ways.  There’s the accommodation approach, where there might be the need for an alternative way of doing things.  This could be thought of a ‘consumable’ approach.  For instance, a module team or a teacher might make a resource that was specific to an individual learner.  Another approach is universal design, which can be considered, broadly, as more ‘sustainable’: accessibility is considered from the outset and is considered at the design level.

We were told that a chap called Ron Mace created what is known as seven principles that guide ‘universal’ architectural design.  These principles are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, perceptual information (i.e. alarms that offer information through different modalities: they emit a sound and flash at the same time).  

These principles can be applied to an educational context; educators can consider both the universal accessibility of their learning resources, and the systems, products or devices which allow the learning resources to be consumed (we might think of ‘products’ in terms of a series of web pages, an ebook, or a physical paper based book).

During this final workshop, we were directed to a couple of websites.  One of them was called the Centre for applied special technology group (CAST website).  Another organisation that was mentioned was the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning (UDL website).

Final keynote: an accidental comedian

I’ll give a cheeky admission at this point: it was yours truly who gave the final keynote.  The keynote had two parts: a story, and then a performance.  My point was simple: we can achieve more than we ever thought possible if we offer other people encouragement.  In some respects, this is exactly what so many people within the university try to do: academic staff, support staff, and associate lecturers; we do our best to offer encouragement and support for those who are studying.

Final thoughts

One thing that always strikes me about these conferences is the range of different subjects, workshops and speakers.  This year there were keynotes that delivered different perspectives, and workshops that presented a broad range of topics.  I personally found the workshop about the ‘tech’ particularly interesting (I think because I’m a ‘tech’ sort of guy), and I also found the talk on autism interesting, if only to remind me that there is a wealth of advice and resources that I can draw upon. 

There was an implicit theme and an implicit concern that seemed to run throughout the conference: the sense that things have become more difficult for people who have disabilities, and things are going to continue to become even more challenging.  The underlying story that catalysed the expression of these concerns was, of course, the recent change in government.  Resources, it was argued, are limited, and it’s important to ensure that they are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After the conference, I asked myself a quick question, which was: ‘what else could there have been?’, or ‘what would I find really interesting?’  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly aware of an emerging academic subject called disability studies.  Whilst the objective of the conference has strong and really useful practical focus, I can’t help but feel that a more academic perspective might add something to aspects of the conference.  Disability studies connect to different civil rights movements, the role of the media, analysis of barriers, and how the situation for people with disabilities is different across the globe. 

One thing that was really great, and has always been great, is the presentation of personal perspectives: the student voice is, of course, really important.

Finally, PowerPoint and other resources from the conference (conference materials) are available to internal university people, but if you’re reading this from outside the university, if there’s anything that is of particular interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Christopher Douce

Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:38

Every year, the university runs an internal conference for staff who are directly involved with supporting students who have disabilities.  This is a series of two posts which aims to share my ‘take’ on the 2015 conference.

I think this must have been either the third or the fourth time I’ve been to this event.  In some respects my involvement (and attendance) is slightly accidental since the conference isn’t technically open to academic staff.  Instead, it’s open for those who help or advise students, or help academic module teams to make sure their modules are as accessible as they could be.

I’m very grateful that the conference organisers have allowed me to attend.  In doing so, I can not only share some of the conference themes to the tutors in the London region that I help to support, but also some of my students who study H810 accessible on-line learning (OU module summary).

Opening Keynotes

There were two opening keynotes: one by David Knight, and another by Tony O’Shea-Poon.  Unfortunately I missed David’s presentation, since I fell asleep on the train from London and ended up in Coventry.  I did, however, catch the end of Tony’s presentation.  One of the things that I took away from Tony’s presentation was that there are on-going changes to rules due to government policy.  Those that are affected by disablement can be the hardest hit by change.

Workshop: Improving accessibility for all

The first conference event I went to was facilitated by Adam Hyland, Atif Choudhury and Tim Blunt.  They all help to run an organisation called Diversity and Ability (website), or DNA for short.  DNA is a social enterprise created by and led by disabled and dyslexic learners for the sole purpose of providing support, strategies and assistance.

During the workshop we discussed how different apps could be useful and how students could gain an awareness of different study strategies.   We were directed to a resources page on the DNA website which presents a summary of different types of assistive technologies.   Students can uncover different ways of doing their research, composing text and answers, carrying out proof reading and taking notes during class. 

It isn’t all about technology – it is also getting people involved, and helping learners to make the best use of technology that is available to them.   It’s also about empowerment and building self-esteem.   It’s also important to connecting different aspects (or issues) together, such as the choice and use of assistive technologies and the development of study skills.  I made a note of an elephant in the room’: there are inherent anxieties that accompany working alone.

A significant part of the workshop was dedicated to looking at different tools such as Evernote and Zotero (which was recently highlighted by JISC, an organisation that supports universities).  Another tool mentioned was Calibre, which I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post that was about using the Kindle for studying.  There was also something called Orato,  an application that allows users to select a portion of text, which is then read out loud by your computer.

Different tools can be used to do different things.  Students are, of course, regularly asked to write assignments and compose essays.  To help with this there are a number of composition tools, such as iThoughts (toketaWare website) and XMind, which are tablet and Mac based.

Another important task, is proofreading.  One tool that could help with this is a product called Grammerly which can be built into Chrome or Firefox browsers.   You might also could also use Google Docs (since iOS devices have text to speech functionality), and CereProc Voices to listen to what you have written.  Apparently you can download two high quality voices: one male, another one female.

Writing and editing is all very well, but is there anything to help with the making of notes in class?  Apparently, there is.  We heard about Sonocent Audio Notetaker, which allows you to visualise different sections of a recording and add annotations sections, so you know where to find stuff.  (I can’t help but think that this might be a really useful research tool for social scientists).  Another tool is called Audionote (Luminant software).

You’ve made notes during your class and have completed all your assignments.  An inevitable part of study is, of course, the exam.  There are, apparently, tools that can help.  The presenters the workshop mentioned a number of flash card tools, such as Studyblue, Quizlet and Anki.  The one they talked most about was Quizlet, since apparently this has a text to speech feature.  Interestingly, some educators have been known to create StudyBlue decks.  As these products were described, I thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I think of creating these tools?’

Revision takes time, which means that time management is important.  To help with this Google calendar was recommended.  It was interesting to hear that Google Calendar could, apparently, be synchronised with Outlook calendars, but this isn’t anything that I have ever tried. 

Students also need to organise their files and records.  We were told of a tool called Alfred (Alfredapp website), a productivity tool for Macs.  Other tools that were mentioned included cloud storage tools, such as Google Drive, Drop Box and One Drive.

The remainder of the session was about the referencing tool Zotero. We looked at how to download a reference template (there is one for the OU Harvard format), and apply it to web links, books for which we had the ISBN number for, books that we found on Amazon, and papers from jstor.org, a ‘a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources’.

There was a lot to take in during this session.  I had heard of some of the tools and products before, but not all of them.  One really useful aspect of the session was to learn how Zotero could be used, and also to be talked through the different sets of tools that students could use.  A really important ‘take away’ point was that assistive technology, in whatever form it takes, is always changing.  There is also great value in the ‘free’ or low cost products that exist.  I began to realise that assessors (those people who offer advice for students with disabilities) have a tough job in terms of keeping up with what might be the best tools for learners.

Keynote: Autism and Asperger’s in Higher Education

The second keynote of the conference was given by Lyndsey Draper from the National Autistic Society.  Lynsdey kicked off by giving us an interesting and surprising statistic – that over the last 10 years, disclosure of autism increased by 100%.  Another interesting fact was that autism is the only disability in the UK that has its own specific legislation.

After briefly describing what autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, Lyndsey spoke about some different theories about it.  From what I remember, I understand that there is now a consensus that there is a genetic component. 

We were also given some interesting statistics: it affects 2.8 million families and 1.1% of the population.  The diagnosis of women is apparently increasing, but a diagnosis can also be masked by other conditions, such as the eating disorder anorexia, for example.  (I remember reading some research by Simon Baron-Cohen a couple of years ago about a potential link between anorexia and autism; the systematising and food obsession represents a behaviour trait that has parallels with some behaviours that can be observed in autism).

A further interesting point was that how differences can manifest themselves may depend very much on the environment.   Lyndsey made the point that the term Asperger’s syndrome was being replaced in favour of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, for short.

As Lyndey was talking, I remembered a phrase from a session that I went to the previous year.  It was: ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met only one person with autism’; the point being that everyone is very different.

So, what might the challenges be when it comes to higher education? Students may struggle with social communication, or, specifically, understanding the unwritten rules of communication.  Smalltalk, it was said, can be considered to be illogical or complicated.  Students also might find it difficult to understand the perspectives of others.

These things said, people who have ASD are known to have some key strengths: attention to detail, a methodical approach, good memory for factual information, problem solving skills, numerical skills, and are reliable and resourceful.  As well as having a different way of thinking to others, another strength can be deep specialist knowledge and skills.

From the academic perspective, we need to acknowledge the significance of the social perspective.  There is also an obvious necessity to provide clear unambiguous feedback (which should, of course, be offered to all students too!)  In terms of adjustment, an important activity could be to try to facilitate contact between students and staff, interpret academic speaking and writing, using of checklist and offer clarifications as to what is required.

Workshop: Supporting students with autism in higher education

In addition to the keynote, Lyndsey also facilitated a workshop (which I had signed up to go to).  Like her keynote presentation, it was also filled with really interesting facts.  Apparently, students who have a diagnosis of autism are less likely to drop out than other students, i.e. 6.9% versus 10%.

In terms of the disabled student’s allowance (which is funding from the government to help students to study), students who have ASD may not benefit from the use of technology than other groups of students with disabilities.   Instead, students with ASD benefit from mentors and study support.

In the workshop, we were again given a little bit of history.  We were told about Kanner or ‘classic’ Autism, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the differences between them.  We were then asked about our perceptions and understandings.   A key phrase I noted in my notebook was: ‘everyone is completely different’, and that what is ‘good practice for autism is good practice for everyone’.

In terms of training: clarify roles, such as turn taking and eye contact.  We were offered a challenge: ‘can you imagine how much effort it would be to continually control eye contact all day?’  There is also the challenge of metaphor and idiom.

Other issues that can emerge include anxiety, depression, perfectionism, single focus or attention on something.  Some students might need prompts on how best to manage their own time. 

It was time for an activity.  We were asked a question: what difficulties might students have and what strategies might be used to overcome them? On our table we chatted about getting students to talk to each other, the challenge of choosing a module, and the ambiguities of language.

A number of points were mentioned during a plenary discussion.  These were the importance of clear feedback and the need to be consistent and specific, the sharing of good practice, and how some students may need transition support between different institutions and levels of study. At the end of the session we were directed to the National Autistic Society website, should we need more information about anything.

Keynote: Education for a new me

Steve McNeice was once a triathlete.  He took us back to a day when everything in his life changed.  He was out on a swim when he realised that he wasn’t very well.  He told us that he had acquired a profoundly serious bacterial infection.  He went to hospital and fell into a coma.  He woke up seven weeks later, with both legs amputated above the knee.  Apparently 95% of double above knee amputees don’t walk.  Seventeen months later, Steve told us that he walked out of the hospital.

I won’t even try to do justice to Steve’s presentation and the effect that it had, both on myself and others who were in the room.  Here was someone who was talking about how his life had changed dramatically.  He went from being active and able bodied, to having to learn how to walk again.  Despite all this, and as he told us his story, he exuded positivity and good humour.

Apparently some people who use prostetic legs can use up to 300% more energy than able bodied people.  As he talked, he walked up and down at the front of the presentation room.  ‘I swim three times a week, and you see all kinds of people at the pool.’ Steve said.  ‘Some of them look and they think, ‘oh, what a shame’, and then I lap them’.

He told us about the seemingly innocuous challenges of going down stairs, navigating escalators and stepping over things.  All these activities that so many of us take for granted, Steve had to re-learn how to do them.  He shows us numerous video clips where he fell over, negotiating a hill.

‘While I was going through rehab, I was studying for a degree’, he told us.  He studied German.  A part of his illness meant that he became deaf in one ear, and partially lost hearing in another.  An adjustment was the request to sit on a certain side of a room.  One thing that he said he needed to work on was listening: so, he studied German.

‘I used the OU to learn about my condition.  I studied T307, designing for a sustainable future.  I designed some sockets for my prostetic limb’.  He told us that he took ownership of his lifelong condition by setting lots of educational goals.

Through these OU conferences, I’ve come to seen that having a disability can open doors to new experiences, rather than close them.  Steve told us that he has contributed to events at the house of commons and is a member of the all-party parliamentary limb loss group.

He told us that he is now studying Italian.  He also lectures at different universities to give something back to physiotherapists, the occupation that offered him so much help.  I also noted down the following words: ‘rehabilitation is an on-going process, and something could change at any point’.

Like so many of us at the talk, I was struck by his spirit of determination.  I also took away the thought that, perhaps, I ought to do slightly more to ‘give back’ to the profession that has tried to help me with my own condition or situation.   His talk also emphasised the transformative effect of education.  I couldn’t help but worry that the increase in higher fees this might potentially prevent or deter some students from studying modules and subject that may influence their lives for the better.

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Christopher Douce

Day in the life of a MCT staff tutor

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 17 Mar 2020, 08:26

I’ve written this blog post to complement a presentation that I have given (or are just about to give!) at a faculty student support team meeting on 17 June. The aim of the presentation was to share something about what staff tutors do on a day to day basis. Since I thought that other people within the university might find the presentation (and this summary) of interest, I’ve decided to share it more widely.

I’ve written this summary from my own perspective; other staff tutors within the Open University (and in other faculties) are likely to have very different days simply because of how their role might be split between central academic work and regional academic work.  There will be, of course, common themes: working with module teams, working with student support teams and working with tutors (and doing research, when time permits!)  We also, of course, can and do speak with students.

If you’ve accidentally discovered this post, you might not know what a ‘staff tutor’ is.  It’s a job that is half academic, and half management.  The management bit means we manage tutors.  This management bit can and does directly feeds into the academic bit: we represent the interests of the tutors during module team discussions.  A staff tutor is what is known as a ‘regional academic’. We are currently spread across the whole of the UK, and we might do a whole bunch of different things, ranging from outreach, working with local industries (if time and opportunity permits), and playing a role in marketing events.  I’m based in the London region, and work for the MCT faculty (which is the faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology).

Before I go on and describe ‘a day’, I should perhaps make a quite note on how I wrote this somewhat eclectic summary.  I began by writing what I got up to during an entire day.  I then thought about other important tasks that hadn't cropped up during the day that I sampled.  In fact, the below narrative is a collage of aspects from different days.  I’ve written it this way so give a sense of the diversity of things that we do.  It’s not representative, since every day is different, but it does give a taste of what kind of things a staff tutor gets involved with.

Blitz the inbox

I usually get up between 7 and 8 in the morning, depending on what I’ve got on.  If I’ve got to travel to Milton Keynes (the head office) I usually set my alarm clock for 6.30pm so I can comfortably catch a couple of trains.  Most of the time, however, I tend to work either at home, or in the Camden regional centre. On this day, I was up at around half seven, had some breakfast, and was in my study around three quarters of an hour later after quite a bit of early morning faffing about. 

When I boot up my laptop in the morning I usually have a single objective: to get though as many inbox messages as I can, as quickly as I can; this way I can figure out what is important and what is not.  I delete unnecessary calls for papers and scan through a ‘geek newsletter’ looking at new tech headlines.  I then delete a load of messages from Milton Keynes.  This might be: fire alarm notifications, messages about cakes and something about a pathway diversion. There is some stuff that I just don’t need to know about.

It’s important to keep everyone in the loop about what you’re doing, so one of the first things I did was to email our London faculty assistant to tell him what I’m doing.

I have a load of folders to manage my email load.  I see one email that corresponds to an on-going issue (a complaint).  I open up a folder that corresponds to the presentation of a module that I’m looking after, and I drag it in, to create a ‘virtual paper trail’ of an issue.

I see a university conference announcement that relates to an eSTEeM project.  This is a university scholarship initiative; I’m becoming increasingly interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning and I received a bit of funding to run my own project.  I read the conference call and wondered: could this conference be useful for dissemination?  Perhaps it might, but I then decided the timing didn’t work: I needed to concentrate on finishing the project which is about understanding the tutor experience of TT284.  I’ve got loads of other ideas; the challenge, of course, is trying to find the time.

One message reminds me that I need to send a message to all TU100 14J students.  One of my roles is to support the level 1 computing undergraduate tutors.  One thing that I’ve been doing is trying to encourage as many students to come along to the face to face tutorial sessions.  To do this I send them neat, concise messages about their day schools – this means they have all the information they need: information about the venue, information about travel information, and information about the room that they need to go to.  I compose a message to our faculty assistant, asking him to send it out later that day.

One email is interesting: can I help out with postgraduate events (because apparently I was some kind of IT curriculum programme lead?)  This was news to me!  I used to be a postgraduate computing student, but I’m certainly not a curriculum lead.  I sent an email to the regional marketing contact (who is always lovely) agreeing to run a ‘demo tutorial’ for any prospective students who might be interested, suggesting that we had a face to face chat when I’m next in the London office.

A colleague sent me a message that demands a response: Could I contribute to an associate lecturer’s CDSA (or, appraisal)?  Yes, I can!  He’s great!  But there isn’t much to say at the moment since he’s currently on a year out, but I’ll happily write a couple of paragraphs that might be useful.

One thing that I do in the region is help out with the associate lecturer development conferences which offer all tutors on-going professional development and training.  These events are very important: they give tutors an opportunity to meet each other, help tutors become familiar with new educational tools and approaches, and help the regional academics to more readily appreciate any of their worries and concerns. I’ve been helping to organise a session where the tutors would work with two actors who are running a session on dealing with difficult telephone calls.  After sending and receiving a couple of messages, it has been decided: the actors are going to invoice the region.

Releasing monitoring reports

It doesn’t seem like there are any really urgent crises to deal with this morning, so I decide to set another objective: to sign off all off on ALL the associate lecturer monitoring reports that have arrived into a faculty inbox over the last week or two. 

I’ve always held the view that signing off on monitoring reports is an important job.  I hold this view for two reasons: firstly, it’s a really useful way to get an understanding of the correspondence tuition that is delivered to students and secondly, as a tutor, I really welcomed the personal comments that used to come from my line manager.  Here’s what I do: I look at the comments of the monitor, and then the PT3, and then the script, and then add some ‘mediation’ comments.  Some monitoring for other staff tutors who are located in another part of the country has ended up in the London inbox, so I emailed it them a colleague who looks after those.

After a couple of hours of work, I decide it’s time for a well-earned cup of tea.

Academic stuff

During my break I idly browsed the BBC technology pages and discovered an article about a new computing initiative that uses something called the ‘Microbit’.  This takes me down the path of looking at (briefly) some of the history about the BBC’s computer literacy project that ran in the 1980s.  I start to read about someone (who is now a fellow of the royal society) who had helped design the ARM chip instruction set.  Since I often help at the London degree ceremonies in the Barbican I started to idly wonder whether this could be someone to put forward for an honorary degree. From my perspective, their contribution to computing is pretty clear.

I decide to park this, since I’ve already said I would recommend someone else to the honorary degree committee, but haven’t (yet) managed to find the time to write a biography of the candidate that I was thinking about.

A few weeks earlier I had attended an event that was run by the Higher Education Academy (HEA website).  The event was all about teaching introductory computing (personal blog), which is an interest of mine.  I also have an awareness that the faculty will soon start to consider how to replace TU100 My Digital Life (which will take a couple of years).  I’ve got this habit of writing ‘blog summaries’ so I can keep notes of interesting events and share these notes with colleagues.  I finally find the time to finish writing my summary, and I upload it to my personal OU blog after a bit of editing.

Dealing with a module issue

I receive a call from a fellow staff tutor about a student who is persistently unhappy with aspects of a module. We swap student ID numbers, and I look up the student record.  We have a chat about the student, and by looking at the student record, we figure out a way forward.  We both manage the tutors who are delivering the module in question, and between each of us we figure out what needs to be done: my colleague agrees to speak with the student to try to offer some further guidance and explanations.

I send my colleague copies of some emails that I had safely filed away.  I remember that after starting as a staff tutor, I soon realised that effective record keeping is really important.

Working with the student support team

The computing and IT student support team is located in Birmingham.  The members of the Birmingham team respond to student’s learner support queries and help students choose their next module on a programme of study.  When it comes to helping students with certain issues, we sometimes ask students to ring the SST, or we create what is known as a ‘service request’, asking the SST to give students a call: there are things that they can do that us staff tutors can’t do.

I receive a call from a colleague in Birmingham about a particular module, TT284 Web Technologies. My colleague has a very precise question about the module, and it’s a question that I can easily answer (since I work with the tutors who deliver that module, and have worked with the module team).  From my own perspective, it’s great to have that contact with someone who is offering advice to the students.  Also, I feel that due to changes in the way that tutors are managed (staff tutors are now managing smaller number of numbers), we’re able to specialise a bit more, and this will help us to more easily respond to detailed academic queries.

Towards the end of the day

As well as being a staff tutor, I’m also a tutor.  In MCT I tutor on M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  In the previous presentation of M364, I ran a module wide revision tutorial.  I didn’t have to do this (this isn’t something that the M364 module team explicitly ask tutors to do), but I thought it would be a good thing to do; plus, it would help me to get more OU Live experience.  I decided to do the same for the current presentation. 

When I announced that I was running a session, another tutor said that she would come along and help out, which was great news. After quite a few email messages, we chose a date and time. There will be two sessions, and we agreed that we would work together on both of them. Our two sessions will tackle the subject of revision in different ways.

After a bit of a delay, the first stage of the Locations Analysis is out. I discover there are a huge number of documents to read through.  I skim through the main document, which seems to be over eighty pages in length. I quickly become tired.

When I get back I check my email again. There an extension request from a fabulous T320 tutor. I’m very happy to accept their judgement, and I appreciated that they asked me about it.  I offered a couple of suggestions about what to say to our student.

It’s the end of the day.  It has been a busy one. I make something to eat, and then caught a train to the middle of London to meet up with some friends.

On the way back, at Charing Cross train station, I noticed that I had missed a call.  There was a voicemail.  It was from a student of mine. I called the student back and we had a chat.  The student was asking for an extension. I agreed to the extension, and highlighted some sections of the assignment so our student could just focus on completing what he needed to do. I also emphasised a really important point: that there are no extensions to the final TMA. 

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Christopher Douce

Associate Lecturer Development Conference – LSE, April 2015

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This is a quick blog about an AL development conference I attended on 25 April at the London School of Economics.  I was looking forward to this event because I helped to put together parts of the programme.  Plus, I foolishly volunteered to run a session and facilitate the Mathematics Computing and Technology session.  It was destined to be a busy day.

The keynote talk was by my colleague Pat Atkins who presented a summary of some of the changes that were happening across the university.  These included a gradual alignment of associate lecturer contracts to various student support teams, and the introduction of a new group tuition policy, which is likely to substantially affect both tutors and module teams.

Other sessions

I helped to ‘pull together’ three AL development sessions during this conference.  After being inspired by ‘acting’ sessions that had been organised by colleagues from the South East region, I discovered that I knew someone who offered training to deal with difficult telephone calls.

Another session was about working with different pieces of technology (which was facilitated by two experienced technology associate lecturers). 

The third session was about working with students who have visual impairments.  I remember that the tutor, Richard Walker (who ran a similar session last year) saying that there is likely to be a high probability that every associate lecturer will have to work with a student who has a visual impairment at some point. 

Other sessions at the conference were about working with students who have English as a second language and a session about the role of the advisors in the London region.

The main purpose of this blog is, however, to present a quick summary of the session on OU Live Pedagogy that I ran.

The pedagogy of OU Live

For the uninitiated, OU Live can be thought of a bit like a version of Skype that has a whole load of other features, such as a shared whiteboard, and tools that enables a tutor to ask students different questions.  It also enables tutors to share portions of their screen, so students can see exactly what a tutor sees.

I think I was inspired to run this session by going to a number of other similar sounding sessions over the last few years.  A thought was, ‘what could I add to the debates about OU Live that I haven’t already heard’.  I had two objectives for my session.  The first objective was to share some of my own views about what it means to teach (or to facilitate learning) through OU Live.  The second objective was to share experience and practice.   Or, put another way, to learn about how different tutors use it to teach different modules.

A big part of the session was drawn from an earlier blog post where I wrote about the different ways to use OU Live.  For this session, I renamed a couple of the approaches.  The approaches that I talked about were:

  • Traditional tutorial: which is similar to a face to face session
  • Demonstration tutorial: where a tutor demonstrates something, such as a set of pages or some software.
  • Practical workshop: a session where a tutor puts a lot of focus into a product, tool, system, or activity.
  • Debate: an interactive debate between two tutors.
  • Recording a lecture: a short lecture which potentially augments materials provided by the module team, or to offer further explanations.
  • Drop-in session: an informal scheduled time where students can interact with a tutor and ask questions.
  • Student session: a scheduled but unfacilitated session that allow students on the same module to chat to each other.
  • Special (or additional support) session: a one to one session between a student and a tutor.

These ‘types’ are very informal.  I’ve created these types by trying to summarise all the different ways I’ve heard people talking about how they use OU Live.  It isn’t systematic, and it isn’t informed by theory; this rough taxonomy (of you could call it that) is more informed by the sharing of practice.

An important point that I made during the session is that, in some ways, technology moves a lot faster than pedagogy.  Tools such as OU Live offer us tutors a lot of different features.  The challenge is trying to figure out how to use them in the best possible way to make sure that students can learn efficiently.  It’s tempting to use these tools to just deliver dry lectures, where there are sets of PowerPoint slides.  The real challenge (from where we can create really engaging learning experiences) is to understand how to apply these tools to enable active learning.

Final thoughts

I always enjoy coming along to AL development events, and this one was also fun too: I enjoy running sessions!  The next conference is likely to take place in November 2015 in the Camden Town centre.

There’s going to be a couple of months off, before the conference planning group starts thinking about the next event.  (And, in the meantime, I’m going to take the liberty to visit the Oxford region to see what they’re doing).

 

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Christopher Douce

eSTEeM annual conference: TEL in practice

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On 16 April, I went to the first day of the Open University’s eSTEeM conference.  eSTEeM is an Open University initiative to bring ‘together academics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to promote innovation, scholarship and enterprise in open and distance learning’.  The eSTEeM website offers loads of information about the different projects that are funded through the initiative. Before trying to summarise my ‘take’ on the whole event, I should also add that TEL (which is in the title of the event) is an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning.

Opening keynote

Due to travel timing, I missed the opening address, but I managed to get to the opening keynote, which had the title ‘Using technology in teaching and learning: it is scholarly?’ by Linda Price from the Institute of Educational Technology. My immediate instinct to this question was to say ‘yes’, but the point to Linda’s talk was to encourage us all to think about what scholarship means when it comes to TEL.

An interesting point was that educators and institutions used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, but technology has enabled some information (and knowledge) to become open.  Two examples of this is with the availability of Open Educational Resources (or OERs), and the increase in the number of open access journals.

Linda’s talk offered us a useful caution, that ‘technology will never save us from poor teaching, it will make things worse’.   Another point was about the importance of learner motivation, and that if technology is not properly integrated into a module then there’s a likelihood that it isn’t to be used (or, used poorly).

Another thought is that technology might not be the problem, but pedagogy might be.  Or, in other words, we need to develop our understanding about how best to use new.  Three important questions are: How do we make choices (of what technology to use)?  What evidence is there? Are we looking at opinion based practice or evidence informed practice?

Connecting to the ‘scholarly’ part of her title, we were told about a number of scholarly principles.  These were: the importance of goals, preparation, methods, results, presentation and critique.  These can also be connected with different scholarly approaches, such as the need to thoroughly analyse a problem, understand the context, review the literature, setting aims and objectives, designing of teaching and learning interventions, evaluation methods, and sharing of findings.

A final point that I have made a note of was that we need to think about how theory can relate to and drive our research.  This left me with a question: which theories are important and relevant?  This, of course, connects back to the importance of being aware of current debates, issues and, of course, the literature that relates to a particular area of research.

Workshop: what do you mean by tuition?

The university is introducing something called the Group Tuition Policy which is to affect both on-line and face to face tuition.  The aim of this workshop (which was one of many different events I could have chosen) was to facilitate discussions about how we might begin to plan and implement the policy (which is something that I’ll have to do as a part of my day job).

The workshop was split into two different activities and related to two different perspectives.  The first was to discuss what is meant by the term tuition, from the tutor’s perspective.  The second activity was all about what students should expect from tuition.  For this second activity we were encouraged to draw a ‘rich picture’.

At the end of each section, we shared different perspectives.  Points that I noted down were, ‘we need to up our game when it comes to on-line [tuition]’, ‘you can’t describe on-line as tutorials’ (which was an interesting perspective), and that there is ‘no difference between watching a recording and being on-line (or, participating in an on-line tutorial)’.  It was obvious there were a number of interesting, slightly conflicting, views.

How students learn in Massive Open Online Courses

The third session that I went to was all about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.  Allison Littlejohn, from the Centre for Learning and Teaching (and the Institute of Educational Technology) began by asking everyone how many had taught or learnt through a MOOC.  A good number of members of the audience put up their hands.

Allison spoke about a topology of learning.  This included dimensions of formal/informal, intentional/unintentional and recognised/unacknowledged.  She then went onto mention a study at Duke University which analysed 75 different MOOCs in terms of whether they adhered to good instructional design.  If I remember correctly, the results were not very positive.

 A key research question that was asked was: how do students learn in MOOCs?  A related question is: do people who are highly motivated behave differently?  To answer his question, a researcher called Barry Zimmermann was mentioned (with regards to his work on self-directed learning), and three case studies.

The first case study was about a ‘connectivist MOOC’ called SRL-MOOC (Glasgow Caledonian University) (I’m not sure what connectivist in this context means – I think I’ve made a note of the term correctly!)

The second case study was an introduction to the data sciences, and was from the University of Washington.  It ran using the Coursera platform, and had forty thousand learners.  We were introduced to an instrument called SQLMQ which was used to analyse learner behaviour, and could connect with factors such as student motivation.  (There was a lot of detail here that didn’t make a note of since this was all new to me!)

After this second case study there was an opportunity to discuss a question: how would we create a MOOC that could help self-regulated learners?  This was an interesting question that led onto quite a bit of debate, about the business models of MOOCs, how you might engage learners that were not ‘self-regulated’, and worries about their terrible completion rates.

 Allison found something interesting about self-regulated learners.  Low self-regulated learners sometimes engaged with MOOCs with the objective of getting a certificate, whereas high self-regulated learners took a more strategic approach, choosing to carry out learning that relates to a job, role or task.  Simplistically put, some high regulated learners tended to dip in and out of a MOOC, gain what they need, and then move on.

I can relate this finding with my own experience.  I have signed up to three different MOOCs, but I haven’t finished any of them.  The first one was about the history of the internet.  I completed the assessment, but then became a bit grumpy about the comments that were coming back from my ‘peer’.  Plus, I was finding there was a bit more reading to do than I expected (so I dropped out!)  My reasons to take the two other MOOCs were all about ‘checking to see what other institutions were up to’, and finding out whether I was missing anything in my teaching.  I dropped out of the first interaction design MOOC when I realised that the content was solid, and offered me some reassurance that my teaching was ‘on target’ with the overall aims of the discipline.  I dropped out of the final MOOC when I realised that the course was pretty baffling and didn’t seem to be teaching the subject in a very satisfactory way.  This relates, in part, to Allison’s opening comment about the importance of effective learning design.

The third case study was a module about clinical trials, and was hosted in the Edx platform.  I didn’t take any notes of this third case study, since I was probably still thinking about the distinction between ‘high self-directed learners’ and ‘low self-directed learners’.

A final activity of the day was to think about some form of recommendations about either MOOC design, or learning design.  Our table chose, instead, to discuss other issues, including the role and importance of face to face tuition.

Short paper session

The next session contained three short ‘paper’ presentations. 

The first was by Clem Herman, and her presentation was entitled ‘putting gender on the agenda: why gender should be a threshold concept for STEM educators’.  Clem spoke about the university’s involvement with an initiative called Athena Swan (Equality Challenge Unit).  

Two of the key objectives of the initiative is to ‘address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation’ and ‘to tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation’.  To be recognised by the initiative, institutions have to go through an audit process, enabling the university to gain an understanding of the state of gender representation in individual departments. 

It was interesting (and alarming) to hear that the number of women enrolling in the first level undergraduate computing module has been dropping (in comparison to Maths and Statistics, which was reported as being okay). Postgraduate registrations, apparently, have always been low.

During the question and answer session, questions were asked about engagement with external organisations (which have similar objectives), and there was a discussion about unconscious bias and the ‘stereotype threat’.  I think what is means being aware of gender related expectations when it comes to subject specific performance.

The next presentation of the day was by ‘yours truly’.  I briefly spoke about a university funded project that has been carrying out some research into the tutor experiences of teaching on a second level computing module called TT284 Web Technologies (Open University).  I won’t go into the fine detail, but a description of the project is available on the eSTEeM website, with an accompanying project poster (PDF).

The final talk of the day was from Martin Reynolds, who gave a talk entitled, ‘Designing a learning system for postgraduate recruitment and retention based on systemic enquiry’ (I may or may not have made a proper note of his title).  During his talk I remembered him telling us something about a university LinkedIn ‘systems thinking’ alumni forum, where students are continuing to share knowledge and experience beyond the boundaries of the postgraduate modules that they have been studying.

Closing keynote

 The closing keynote, entitled ‘getting data into your eye: live in the field, life in the lab, and augmented reality’ was by Peter Scott, who was from The Open University Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). 

Peter talked us through a series of EU funded projects that KMI had been involved with; I recognised the name of some projects, but not all, such as WeSpot (EU project website), The Open Science Laboratory (Open University website) and Engaging Science (EU project website) which might have been mentioned into an associate lecturer development event that I went to at the University of Sussex.  Another project was called the Field Network System (Open University website), which was about creating a portable network infrastructure for scientific fieldwork.

A big part of Peter’s talk was about applications of something called ‘augmented reality’; a topic that is featured in a module that I tutor called M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design (OU website).  Augmented reality is where digital technologies can add additional information to a digital scene.  An interesting point was made is that AR can become really useful if we use it in combination with people, which leads us to the term ‘socio-technical augmentation’.

An interesting example of this can be found in a project called TellMe (EU project), an abbreviation for Technology Enhanced Learning Living Lab for Manufacturing Environments.  We were shown a demo where a computer tool offered engineers visual guidance about how to assemble and work with components.   Another perspective is that you could potentially be guided by another engineer who is working at a distance.  During these demonstrations I thought about my own interests in teaching computer programming, and wondered about how these tools might be used in this somewhat different context.

Towards the end of his talk, we were shown a demonstration of a virtual volcano (that was spewing lava) that popped out of a text book.  We could only see the ‘virtual volcano’ is we viewed it through the screen of a smartphone, which hinted at the wide variety of different ways that technology can be used when it comes to teaching and learning.

Final thoughts

There was a lot going on during the day, and I felt that I missed out on quite a few things.  I like days like these, since they force you to sit down, listen and learn.  They are also opportunities to help you to understand what is going on, and to gather up gently clues as to how the teaching and learning of science and technology may be changing.  A connected challenge is to try to find the time to investigate what happened in the other sessions and continue to keep up with the various developments that you are introduced to.

During conference I became involved in a couple of conversations about research about introductory programming, and there was even some talk about organising what might become a mini conference.  The bulk of the talk was an objective for a couple of us (who were interested in similar topics) to try to get our heads together; to try to understand more about where the ‘state of the art’ was heading.  In some respects, this was an outcome that was as just as useful as learning about new projects.  The reason for this is that these new connections and discussions have given me a bit of much needed and welcome motivation.

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Using the cloud to get to the OU campus

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:25

I get to visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes with alarming regularity and getting there is always a bit of a trauma; I need to take three trains and then a shuttle bus.  After doing this journey for about two years, I’ve managed to get the timing down to a fine art, but sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as you hope:  I sometimes miss the shuttle bus and I have to catch a taxi. 

I can’t help the feeling that catching a taxi, on your own, is an extraordinary extravagance.  About a year ago, when my train was delayed, I got chatting to a fellow train traveller who was sat opposite me in the same carriage.  I noticed that he was rifling through some papers that contained the unmistakeable university logo.

‘Are you heading to Walton Hall?’ I asked.  It turned out that he was, and my fellow traveller, like me, was planning to catch a taxi to the campus.

‘Fancy sharing a cab?’ I asked.

I turned out that my fellow traveller, who I had never met before, had pretty much the same job as I had: he had the job title of staff tutor, but was based in Wales and worked in the Health and Social Care faculty.  He had travelled up to Milton Keynes after spending a night out with friends in London.  If I hadn’t nosily spotted his university papers, we would have incurred double the amount of expenses, and missed out on an opportunity for a nice chat.

Sharing lifts

Hundreds of people work at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  There are so many people travelling between the university and the train station that the university puts on a shuttle bus at peak hours - but what happens if you travel outside of peak hours?  The answer is you either catch a cab (which is costly), or you try to catch a local bus which takes ages and is pretty infrequent.

I don’t mind sharing taxi rides with colleagues.  The problem is that because there are so many of them that I don’t know who they are!  Even if I did know who they were, they might be in another carriage and have hailed and taxi and left the station forecourt before I had a chance to catch up with them.

One solution might be to loiter around the taxi rank and bellow: ‘is there anyone here who is going to THE OPEN UNIVERSITY? Does anyone WANT TO SHARE A CAB?!’ and see what happens.  The problem is that since I’m exceptionally English and doing things like this instils in me a morbid fear of being arrested.

Connections

When I was travelling to the campus one morning, an idle thought went through my mind.  I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be good if I could just take out my mobile phone, start an app, and push a button that says “I’m on the train from London to Milton Keynes – and I would be happy to share a lift to the campus if anyone is up for it…”’ 

This imaginary app would then tell me whether there was anyone else who was on the same train as me, or offer me an alert if anyone on the train would like to share a ride to my destination.  Another variation of this would be to try to find strangers to share journeys with, who might be going to roughly the same part of the city that you were travelling to.  To keep it simple, I thought, ‘no, that would just increase the complexity – let’s just think about this in terms of a single organisation’.

I imagined my app would be able to display the first name of fellow travellers, the faculty or department that they were in (which would be really useful in terms of facilitating a conversation), and also have a picture – so you know what a fellow traveller may look like when you get to the taxi rank.

There would be two obvious wins and one positive side effect.  The two wins were economic (it saves the university money), and environmental (less fuel is burnt to get to the campus).  The side effect is that you might be able to have some great chats, which might help you to keep up to date with what’s going on across the university.

Technical questions

So, how might we make this idea a reality?  Well, we need to figure out how to write an app.  Secondly, we need to figure out how to save data (so we can make a record of who is travelling on which train).  Thirdly, we need to get some data somehow (so we can get information about different trains).  Finally, we need to do a bit of ‘data crunching’ somewhere so we can be alerted as to whether there are other people on our train that we could share a lift with.

Creating an app

So, how do we go about creating an app?  The answer is: there are loads of different ways.  You can either create ‘native apps’ or you could create ‘web apps’ using HTML 5 and Javascript. 

When it comes to native apps, you might want to create an app for either an Android phone, or an iPhone.  If you’re thinking of developing an app for an iPhone, you might use xCode, which is a toolset from Apple (where there is a fancy new programming language called Swift). 

If you’re thinking of developing for an Android phone, you might consider using Android Studio, NetBeans (NBAndroid) or MIT AppInventor (I’m sure there are other tools out there!)  The problem, of course, is that some OU staff use Android phones, and some use iPhones.  To attempt to take the pain away from the nightmare of different platforms, there’s something called PhoneGap (but I don’t know too much about that… it’s all new to me!)

Storing data

Assuming that we build an app, then how do we store (and share) data?  This is where the cloud comes in.  The problem is that I don’t want to spend any money setting up services.  Plus, it’s been an absolute age since I’ve done any of that stuff.  Another solution is to make use of services from existing businesses that have already done all the hard work for you.

There are a quite a few different providers.  One of the biggest is Amazon.  Amazon offers a service that allows you to ‘plug into’ their existing computing and network infrastructure, allowing you to create and use your own virtual machines, which then can store data (since these virtual machines can host databases, like MySQL).  Rather than having to pay, host, and power a whole server (which, arguably, is likely to remain idle for quite a lot of time), you can instead pay for how much processor time, network capacity and data storage you consume.  It’s as if a server has become a utility.  Rather than having to worry about backups and whether you need to buy more processing power, this can all be looked after by a third party: you pay for what you use, allowing you to concentrate on the task of writing code and solving your problem.

Of course, you might not want to use Amazon.  If not, there are loads of other cloud data and service providers you might use.  Two of them who come to mind are that of Rackspace and Microsoft.  The interesting thing about Microsoft (and providers who are similar to them), is that you can choose where your virtual servers live.  If most of your customers are located in North America, it probably makes sense (in terms of network performance) to have your virtual servers served from that part of the world.  If more of your users are located in Europe (such as users who are travelling to and from Milton Keynes), you’re likely to want to host your virtual machines in data centres in Europe.

Another thought is: perhaps you don’t want to store your data in machines that are managed by Amazon or Microsoft.  If so, another approach could be to set up your own private cloud (providing you have your own infrastructure to do this, of course).  You might want to do this if your organisation has already invested quite a lot of capital into IT resources, or government or institutional policy dictates that you wish to make sure that your data is only within the remit of a particular jurisdiction.  Everything in life is always a compromise.  You might want to use your own private cloud as opposed to using a public cloud, but a private cloud is likely to cost in terms of hardware, power and administrative overheads.

If I were seriously writing this app, what would I do?  I would ask the IT people in The Open University to see if they have got a cloud system that I could use.  Whilst I wait for them to get back to me (which can sometimes take quite some time) I also might try to experiment and create a prototype using a public cloud provider, since some of them can give you ‘trial accounts’.

Getting data

Let’s say I’m going to a module meeting in Milton Keynes and I’m sat on the 8.46 train from London Euston.  There are two things I need to do: I need to say ‘I’m on this train’, which means storing a record so other people (meaning: other Open University colleagues) can see that I would be up for sharing a taxi, and also recording which train I was on.  The problem is: I don’t want to go through the trouble of entering ‘8.46 from Euston, London Midland’, since I’m lazy and I don’t have too much patience.  Plus, we need to iron out any ambiguity.

One way to solve this problem is see what trains are currently running (because, what happens if my train is delayed?)  Thankfully, Network Rail provides loads of data feeds (Network Rail), which we could use to choose the right train (and, I’m wondering whether we might be able to use the magic of GPS positioning too!)

As a brief aside, being a London resident, I’m a great fan of an app called CityMapper  (CityMapper website).  It gives you loads of information about different bus routes, trains, underground stations, and hooks up to Google Maps so you can see where you’re going.  An interesting question is: how does it work?  One answer lies with the availability of different data feeds, such as the data feeds that Transport for London provides (TfL data feed summary page).  

Why do TfL provide all this data?  The answer is: that TfL are in the business of providing transport, they’re not in the business of creating new apps for new-fangled computing devices: that’s not their core business.  Once feeds are made available, they can be used in new and creative ways.

Back to our ‘taxi ride sharing’ scenario: let’s say we’ve got a group of four people on the train that are prepared to share a ride to the campus, then what happens?  Who is going to make the call to the taxi company?  One thought is that the colleague who instigated a ‘taxi share request’ could do that job.  Or, alternatively, the taxi app might do it for us (if our chosen taxi company has some kind of mechanism to accept taxi bookings from recognised apps). 

Other issues

When we start to think about all this, we come up against questions of user identity and what it means in terms of a mobile device.  Some of my mobile apps make use of my Google+ account, whereas others make use of Facebook.  This can make things a whole lot easier, but it does worry me a little, mostly because I don’t know the extent to which my data is being used (we’re again back to the question of compromise: convenience traded off for ease of use).  One thing that we might want to do is to create our own ‘identity’ management system.

Another issue is that we’re beginning to step into is the currently fashionable area of smart cities (Wikipedia); the possibility that journeys through urban environments can be aided and abetted by the use and sharing of data.  (Not to mention costs and communications).

Final thoughts

Just as I was finishing this blog, the following email popped into my inbox: ‘would anyone like to share a taxi from MK station tomorrow?  I have a choice of trains, the first one arriving MK at 10:02, if that fits with anyone else’s plans?’

I remember this other time when I was travelling to the University of West of England from Paddington to Bristol Parkway train station.  When I got to Bristol Parkway, I had to catch a taxi from the station to the campus.  When I arrived on campus and started to walk where I needed to go, I recognised someone.  That someone was the gentleman who was sitting on the next row along from me.  Again, if only we had known, or had talked, or hadn’t been so English about our early morning journey, we could have shared a taxi together.

A final question is: given all the things that I’ve found out, am I going to go ahead and create this app?  Sadly, I’ve got a whole load of other deadlines to attend to, which means that I can’t afford to invest the time – but I would really like to, and I hope that someone does go ahead and creates it!  I, for one, would really like to give it a try.

In the meantime, what I have decided to do is to make more of an effort to chat to the people who catch the same shuttle bus as I do.  This way, if the train ever gets delayed, I might have more of a clue about who I could share a taxi with. 

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